She may not be a carnivorous plant out of the movies, but Audrey certainly isn’t like the rest of the vegetation in the greenhouses at URI. Audrey, as she has been cleverly named by the botanical staff at the University of Rhode Island, is a Titan Arum, or “Corpse Flower,” and that’s enough to set her apart from the other shrubs and trees any day.
Corpse flowers get their name from their signature malodor – the large blooms tend to smell like decomposing flesh. But their bizarre traits go beyond the smell. The strange plants only produce a flower every four to six years, and on Saturday night, Audrey, the only specimen in Rhode Island on record to do this, began to bloom.
Corpse flowers are indigenous to the equatorial rainforests of Sumatra and Indonesia, and have the largest non-branched inflorescence, which is science’s way of saying they have enormous flowers. The plant was first discovered by an Italian botanist in 1878, and the first bloom of the species occurred in cultivation in 1889.
Audrey’s spadix, the central spire-like growth of the flower, measured 52 inches in height, nearly four and a half feet tall. The blooms can reach up to 10 feet in height, with flowers up to four feet in diameter. Some have been recorded to weigh up to 170 pounds.
The bizarre blooms vary between two different growth cycles: one that produces leaves and branches, and another that produces the single, signature flower. Between the growth cycles, the plants lie dormant. Before Audrey’s bloom, the plant was dormant for five months.
Then, on July 23, something wonderful happened: The plant began to grow, and showed signs that this time, it would produce a flower.
“It was exciting,” said Gabrielle Torphy, a research assistant at URI’s greenhouses. “We didn’t know at what age it would flower.”
Audrey’s corm, or bulb, was planted at URI in July of 2009. Since then, it has grown vegetation twice, falling dormant in between cycles. Since the beginning of its floral growth on July 23, it has undergone a rapid growth cycle, finally blooming around 7 on Saturday evening.
Corpse flower’s blooms only stay open for 24 to 48 hours and then wilt and die. The plant will again fall dormant for months before growing again, and it could be years before it produces another flower.
The allure of the rare bloom drew spectators to URI’s greenhouses on Sunday, including Scott and Terry McPherson from North Kingston, who spent time looking at – and sniffing – the plant.
“We heard about the smell and we heard about the rarity of it blooming, and we figured this was an opportunity to see something that doesn’t happen very often,” said Scott, who found a spot next to the plant where the odor was particularly strong. He jovially beckoned fellow visitors over to smell.
“We had read that it smells like corpses, hence the name, but it smells to me, sort of like that, but also like manure,” he said with a laugh. Scott said the odor wafting from the plant’s bloom was reminiscent of something he would smell when landscapers laid fresh manure at the base of a plant. “It doesn’t smell as foul as I thought it would. It does smell like some sort of rodent or small mammal has died, but it’s not quite as bad as I guess I thought it would be.”
Terry agreed. “I was expecting more pungency,” she said.
Torphy said she calls the smell “dead mouse,” since she thinks it most closely resembles the odor of a small, dead mammal. The reason for the foul odor, she explained, is to attract pollinators, like flies and beetles, to the bloom, the same flies and beetles that would be attracted to dead animals. The inside of the bloom is a deep crimson red, which resembles carrion. Torphy said the plant’s temperature also climbs; a third way in which it mimics an animal to attract the pollinators crucial to its survival.
And pollination might be something that URI aids the plant with in years to come. Torphy said the corpse flower is a “rare and endangered” plant, and she knows of other institutions that have pollinated and grown additional plants in cultivation. She said the University might do that with Audrey. So, like in the movie and musical “Little Shop of Horrors,” will there be an Audrey II? Torphy says yes, though this Audrey won’t be eating anyone or anything.
For now, the plant, whose bloom had already begun to wilt and droop by Sunday afternoon, will be pruned, possibly repotted, and left to lie dormant. How long the plant will remain inactive is anyone’s guess.
“At some point, it will just begin to grow again,” said Torphy.