A Smell to Wake the Dead: Legendary Corpse Flower Set to Rise at Phipps

Rare exotic bloom causes big stink at Pittsburgh’s premier public garden.

In late August 2013 at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, one of the world’s rarest, largest, and smelliest flowers, the legendary corpse flower (Amorphophallus titanum), is set to bloom. Best known for emitting an overwhelming scent resembling that of rotting flesh, the giant, and quite beautiful, corpse flower has been both fascinating and repulsing scores of enthusiasts across the globe since 1889—the year it was first cultivated for public garden display in England.

Affectionately named “Romero” after celebrated filmmaker George A. Romero, whose 1968 cult classic Night of the Living Dead was filmed in the Pittsburgh region, Phipps’ corpse flower is now on display in the Palm Court, where it will stay until it blooms later this month. In honor of this extremely rare spectacle, Phipps also plans to offer late-night visitation hours and festive events, along with special membership packages for those looking to make repeated visits to monitor the flower’s progress.

Native to the rainforests of Sumatra, Indonesia—where it has become increasingly threatened due to habitat loss—the corpse flower is the largest un-branched flower structure on Earth. The bloom, which typically grows to be six to eight feet tall, emerges from an underground tuber—some of which can weigh more than 150 pounds. Depending on temperature and humidity, the flower—which has a distinctive center column surrounded by a sheath and a frilled crimson edge—will last anywhere from 24 to 48 hours, after which it will collapse and decompose, only to reappear again six to 10 years later.

Beyond its impressive size and dramatic appearance, the corpse flower is perhaps most famous for its foul smell, which, along with its meat-like coloration, mimics rotten flesh. Created by two sulfur compounds, this unforgettable stench is an evolutionary function designed to attract pollinators like flies and beetles. The smell is often most intense at night, a time when the flower will heat up to human body temperature to increase the reach of its scent.

While Phipps horticulturists predict that the corpse flower will unfurl at the end of August, exact bloom times can be very unpredictable. Updates will be offered regularly on Phipps’ Twitter and Facebook pages. Details on bloom-time activities will also be posted at phipps.conservatory.org.