Caren White is a Master Gardener and instructor at Home Gardeners School. She has been associated with Rutgers Gardens for over a decade.
Corpse flowers are big news when they bloom in botanical gardens. People line up by the hundreds to see (and smell) them. You can grow your own corpse flower at home provided you have the patience and the space.
What is a Corpse Flower?
Corpse flowers, or carrion flowers as they are more commonly known, are a family of plants whose flowers smell like rotten flesh. The most famous of the carrion flowers is the Titan Arum. This is the one that generates the most excitement because of the size of the flower and that fact that it only blooms once every ten years.
The titan arum is native to the tropical forests of Sumatra. Its latin name, Amorphophallus titanum means giant phallus which is an excellent description of the flower. It grows from an underground corm that can weigh as much as 100 pounds.
The visible part of the “flower” isn’t actually a flower. The structure is called an inflorescence. It can grow to 10 feet tall.
The center “phallus” is called a spadix. The spadix is warm, about the same temperature as the human body. This helps disseminate the odor of rotten meat which attracts the specific pollinators needed by the flowers.
The spadix is wrapped in a petal structure that is called a spathe. The spathe is green on the outside and dark red on the inside. The coloration mimics the appearance of meat to fool the pollinators lured by the scent into thinking that they have found a gigantic meal.
The actual flowers are at the base of the spadix deep inside the spathe. They are arranged in two rings. The top ring is the male flowers. The bottom ring is the female flowers. To prevent self-pollination, the female flowers open first. The male flowers open a day or two later. This ensures that only pollen from another plant can fertilize the female flowers.
When pollination is successful, the plants develop fruits. Each red fruit contains a single seed. Birds love the fruits. The seeds pass through the birds’ digestive systems and are excreted by them as they go about their daily activities spreading the seeds throughout the wild.
The inflorescence lasts less than a day, opening in the afternoon then dying the following morning. It flowers on this schedule because the insects that it depends on for pollination are only active at night. After its death, a single stem grows from the corm which can reach a height of 20 feet tall. The stem and leaflets it bears only last one year. They die and a new stem and leaflets grow after a period of rest for the corm which can last up to two months.
Why Does a Corpse Flower Smell Like Rotting Meat?
Different flowers employ different strategies to attract insects to pollinate their flowers. Some flowers require specific insects to successfully pollinate their flowers. The corpse flower depends on carrion eating beetles and flies to pollinate its flowers. These insects normally feed on rotting meat. The corpse flower mimics the smell of rotting meat to lure these specific beetles and flies to its flowers. The insects, fooled by both the odor and the color of the inflorescence, fly into the structure in search of their normal meal of rotting meat. Once inside, they either become covered with pollen which they carry to the next corpse flower in the area or they pollinate the female flowers with pollen that has attached itself to their bodies from another corpse flower.
How to Grow a Corpse Flower
Corpse flowers are available through reputable online retailers. What you will receive is a seedling, generally a 1 or 2 year old plant that is about 2 feet tall. Bear in mind that it will be 7 to 10 years before the corm is large enough to bear a flower.
Corpse flowers are tropical plants so they will need to be kept in a warm, humid environment. It prefers temperatures of 75⁰F to 80⁰F with 80% to 90% humidity. To achieve that humidity, you will need to mist your plant every day or put it in a room with a humidifier.
Each time the stem and leaf die and the corm enters dormancy, you will need to carefully transplant the corm into a larger pot because it grows larger each year. A mature corm able to produce a flower weighs about 50 pounds. And it will continue to grow after that. You need to be careful not to nick or cut the corm while you are handling it. Any damage to it allows disease to enter which can kill it. You also want to re-pot it quickly so that it doesn’t dry out and die.
You can use regular potting soil that contains perlite or peat moss to provide drainage. Drainage is very important or the corm will rot. Keep the soil moist but not soaking wet. Many people keep the pots elevated off of the floor to prevent disease and insects getting into the pots through the drainage hole in the bottom.
While the corm is actively growing, you can provide it with slow release fertilizer but when it goes dormant, you should withhold fertilizer.
In the wild, corpse flowers are what is known as “understory plants”. This means that they grow under trees in the forest rather than in open glades where they would get full sun. So grow your corpse flower in semi-shade rather than in direct sunlight to mimic its natural environment. If you put it outdoors in the summer, place it under a tree or in a shady area.
As your plant grows, it will become taller and taller. You will eventually need a room with a 10 to 30 foot ceiling to accommodate your plant.
How to Grow a Corpse Flower From a Leaf Cutting
If you know someone who has a corpse flower, you can take a cutting (with permission!) from one of its leaves to grow your own. Take a 1’ to 2’ piece of a leaf that includes a Y shaped vein and dip the cut edge into rooting hormone. Place that edge in soil and keep the cutting in a warm, humid room. In about 9 months, a corm will have formed and leaves will begin to grow from it. In 8 to 10 years, you will be rewarded with a flower.
Questions & Answers
Question: My beautiful corpse flowers bloomed a few years ago twice in a row. Then in the past couple of years, they didn’t bloom but had the beautiful tall healthy leaves and also had some growing leaves near the main plant. For me, it looked like the new babies grew out. Are the new Corpse flower bulbs/shoots growing there in-between bloomings? What I should do now? By the way, Its winter started here in Melbourne Australia.
Answer: It sounds like some of your flowers were pollinated and produced seeds which fell close to your main plant. They are new plants with their own corms. Since the corms eventually grow to be very large, I would transplant these new seedlings farther away from the mail plant to give both enough space to grow.
Question: What kind of insects does a corpse flower need to pollinate it?
Answer: Corpse flowers depend on carrion-eating beetles and flies for pollination. These are insects that feed on dead meat. They are attracted to the putrid scent of the flowers which smell like spoiled meat. Outside of their native Sumatra, corpse flowers are grown indoors in greenhouses. There are no insects present in those greenhouses, so the flowers do not get pollinated and no seeds are produced.
Question: What does a corpse flower look like when its ready to transplant?
Answer: You should repot your corm into a larger pot every year after the stem and leaves die. It will look like the plant is dead, but it is really dormant. After repotting, your corm will grow a new stem and leaves.
Question: What sort of soil does a corpse flower need?
Answer: The corpse flower is a tropical plant only hardy in zone 10 so it is usually grown in containers. You can use regular potting soil that contains perlite or peat moss to provide drainage. Drainage is very important or the corm will rot. Keep the soil moist but not soaking wet. Many people keep the pots elevated off of the floor to prevent disease and insects from getting into the pots through the drainage hole in the bottom.
Question: What kind of soil do corpse flowers grow in the wild?
Answer: Corpse flowers grow in rainforests which surprisingly have very poor soils. When plants die in that environment, they are very quickly broken down by fungi and other microbes, releasing nitrogen and other nutrients into the soil. The surrounding vegetation immediately uses those available nutrients so the nutrients don't have a chance to be stored in the soil resulting in soil that has almost no nutritive value.
© 2018 Caren White
Caren White (author) on February 21, 2020:
How wonderful that you have had such success growing this plant. When it blooms, people in the local horticulture community would be very interested in seeing it. You might want to notify the local garden club, the staff at local botanical gardens and your county Master Gardeners. I would hesitate to notify the press because you might be overwhelmed by the numbers of the public that would want to see the plant.
Toby on February 20, 2020:
Next year will be the 7th year I have had the plant in my backyard. It was about 6 ft. tall this year and looked like the picture in a comment below. I was hopeful that it would flower next year as the corm is very large and it is now in a huge pot resting in my garage. I wait and hope each year for the plant to reappear. No guarantees, I know. Should I be lucky enough to have it flower, who, if anyone, should I let know about it.?
Caren White (author) on June 18, 2019:
Most likely the "seeds" that you received are actually corms. Corpse flower seeds must be fresh to germinate properly so they cannot be stored or sent in the mail. Grow the corms your received according to the instructions that I have provided.
Mindful Foreigner on June 12, 2019:
How do I grow the seeds I just got?
Eman Abdallah Kamel from Egypt on October 30, 2018:
So beautiful flower and very informative article.
Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on October 29, 2018:
Such an interesting flower. I never knew they grow that big. I wish I can grow one.