The Corpse Flower & Goethe, Dying Into Being

*This Distill My Heart about the infamous corpse flower and its unsavory pollinators is a little bit stinky creepy crawly, a little bit anthroposophical sweetness, and was first published at Quail Bell Magazine.*

Most people know Goethe as the author of Faust and other literary works. But Goethe was also a keen amateur botanist who was very proud of his scientific writings, despite the fact that they fell flat in his own time–both because he was not a member of the scientific community and because they seemed outlandish to his contemporaries. “Stick to poetry,” was the general consensus. His 1790 Metamorphosis of Plants was not fully appreciated until after Darwin’s theory of evolution established itself.

In their chapter on Goethe, the authors of The Secret Life of Plants (1973) present the poet-scientist against the backdrop of the cataloguing and classifying mania of the 18th and 19th centuries, and lament how that mania deprived the study of botany its vivacity:

How many universities even now draw the parallel between the hermaphroditic nature of plants, which bear both penis and vagina in the same body, with the “ancient wisdom” which relates that man is descended from an androgynous predecessor? The ingenuity of some plants in avoiding self-fertilization is uncanny. Some kinds of palm trees even bear staminate flowers one year and pistillate the next. Whereas in grasses and cereals cross-fertilization is insured by the action of the wind, most other plants are cross-fertilized by birds and insects. Like animals and women, flowers exude a powerful and seductive odor when ready for mating. This causes a multitude of bees, birds, and butterflies to join in a Saturnalian rite of fecundation.

Enter the corpse flower, the titan arum, whose Latin binomial, Amorphophallus titanum, refers to its giant (titanum), misshapen (amorpho), phallus-like spadix, which some say resembles more a French baguette.

In the past few weeks, the corpse flower has received a lot of attention as it has bloomed in the botanical gardens of three US cities: New York, Washington DC and Denver. My personal favorite, based on name alone, is Charlotte, the darling of the U.S. Botanic Garden.

In The Corpse Flower is Ready for its (Smelly) Close-up, published on August 2, the Washington Post warns:

She took her own sweet time to unfurl the maroon cape that surrounds the central spike of the world’s largest unbranched flower. But that may be the only thing about Charlotte that is sweet. She opened at around 4 a.m. and by late morning was greeting visitors with odors that ranged from rotting cabbage to stinky trash and worse. Over the next few hours, and particularly Tuesday evening, her horticultural minders anticipate the flower to unleash the rotten flesh stink that gives it its common name.

Amorphophallus titanum is a member of the angiosperm (flowering/fruiting) phylum, which is by far the most successful plant phylum with over 250,000 species. In terms of diversity, angiosperms are second only to the insect phylum, with whom they have flourished. In the push for genetic diversity, insects and angiosperms have been very cleverly doing the genetic mutation dance in tandem for about a hundred million years–remember that fun video of a bee humping an orchid?

As OpenStax Biology puts it, “Most flowers have a mutualistic pollinator, with the distinctive features of flowers reflecting the nature of the pollination agent. The relationship between pollinator and flower characteristics is one of the great examples of coevolution.”

This brings us to the corpse flower’s pollinators…

Sure, you can attract sweet-toothed bees and butterflies with nectar, but why compete with all those girly flowers? Corner the market on the smell of death, and the night’s creepy-crawlies are yours! The corpse flower bothers not with the masses but has rather made a name for itself in the niche-market that caters to flesh eating flies and beetles who come out at night for a snack and to lay their eggs in carcasses.

Instead of a slab o’ meat, these fellows find themselves trotting atop a giant flower, which, in addition to exuding convincing odor, generates heat in its Oscar-worthy portrayal of rotting flesh. Dazed and confused, the beetle or fly departs in search of the real thing and is (hopefully) foiled by another corpse flower, thereby delivering new genetic material for a new generation.

The corpse flower must open, attract pollinators and be pollinated all within a day or so, if it is not to have gone through all its work in vain. Allow me to reiterate the strangeness of plants, which, unlike most of us, possess both male and female organs. In other words, flowers can self-pollinate, though many, like the corpse flower open or activate their male and female sex organs in succession rather than concurrently in order to avoid this. The point is that flowering plants have developed ingenious ways of spreading their seed, and a marvelous diversity, foul and fair, has sprung from that evolutionary impulse.

Perfect (Calla) lily, Killarney, Ireland.

Perfect lily, Killarney, Ireland

The corpse flower is a member of the family araceae, which also includes the calla lily (Calla palustris). This is lucky for me, since I have never seen a corpse flower but have a very vivid visual memory of the sexy calla lily from my childhood backyard in San Francisco. I see quite clearly in my mind’s eye the large and elegant white spathe–what I would have called a petal–with its yellow finger-like thing sticking up out of it–I now know this to be called the spadix on which the actual flowers hang out. This is a good memory to have since all I have to do is enlarge the whole thing by several feet, color it burgundy and, ta-dah! Behold the titan arum. Please don’t pop my bubble if I’m wrong. I’m blind. Give me a break. Anyway, who gives a dam what the thing looks like? People don’t stand in long lines for the look of the thing. No. They flock to city botanical gardens in order to smell the stink!

But because the Titan arum reaches ripeness of stench in the middle of the night, visitors to botanical gardens featured in YouTube videos seem disappointed by the underwhelming gross-out quotient. Personally, living in New York City, where summer stinks abound, I felt not the least need to witness this smelltacular.

According to Titan arum’s Wikipedia page:

Analyses of chemicals released by the spadix show the “stench” includes: dimethyl trisulfide (like limburger cheese), dimethyl disulfide, trimethylamine (rotting fish), isovaleric acid (sweaty socks), benzyl alcohol (sweet floral scent), phenol (like Chloraseptic), and indole (like human feces).

Interestingly, I’ve run into this last before. Indole, despite its resemblance to poop, is a chemical constituent in some of the most beautiful-smelling flowers such as jasmine (Jasminum grandiflorum, J sambac, etc.) ( and ylang-ylang(Cananga odorata), which are both used in perfumery and aromatherapy for their calming, alluring and even aphrodisiac qualities. As Perfumes: The A-Z Guide puts it:

One of the many difficulties that nature has strewn in the path of perfumers is the vexed problem of indole. Indole is a small molecule made up of a hexagonal ring and a pentagonal ring fused together and containing nitrogen. It and its kissing cousin skatole are breakdown products of the digestion of food and are therefore found in feces. They are also found in large amounts in white flowers such as jasmine, ylang, etc., possibly to attend to the eclectic tastes of pollinating insects. In the textbooks, their odor is described as “fecal, floral in dilution,” which is nonsense: they smell like shit when in shit, and like flowers when in flowers. By itself indole smells like ink and mothballs; skatole smells like bad teeth and that wonderful tripe sausage called andouillette. What, you ask, is the problem? If you measure the amount of indole in, say, jasmine oil and make up a synthetic mix with the same amount of the pure stuff, it will smell of mothballs whereas the natural one doesn’t. Why? Nobody knows. But that is the main reason why white-flower reconstitutions seldom have the back-of-the-throat rasp of the real thing. Perfumers put in as much indole as they dare, but usually stop short of the full dose.

I think nature touches upon the uncanny with this not-quite-rightness of an ostensibly monolithic good or bad scent. Disgusting scents have a little flower sweetness (benzyl alcohol) to make them especially awful, while beautiful ones need a little nasty indole to keep them from being cloying.

As mentioned above, besides producing um, fragrance, the corpse flower is thermogenic (heat-producing)–stink + heat = convincing carrion!

Other colorfully/odoriferously named thermogenic members of the araceae family are:

Heat production takes a lot out of the plant, which is one reason why the corpse flower bloom is so short. The corpse flower resembles a corpse more than a flower for much of its lifecycle.

After the corpse flower blooms and dies, a gigantic leaf–the size of a small tree–will rise from the corm. A corm is an underground modified stem used for energy storage that resembles a bulb or rhizome–the corm of the corpse flower is as outrageous as the rest of the plant, typically weighing over a hundred pounds. The leaf will work to store food-energy, then wither and fall off, leaving the giant corm to lie underground dormant for approximately four months, then the process will begin again.

The corpse flower’s contraction into the corm is a perfect segue back to Goethe, as his understanding of the lifecycle of a plant takes place in a series of expansions and contractions, each seeming entirely different from one another and yet all containing within them the potentiality of the whole plant.

So as we wave goodbye to the corpse flower bloom, I leave you with an anthroposophical flourish, found in Ernst Lehrs’ book Man or Matter; introduction to a spiritual understanding of nature on the basis of Goethe’s method of training observation and thought (1958):

Compared with the leaf, the flower is a dying organ. This dying, however, is of a kind we may aptly call a ‘dying into being.’ Life in its mere vegetative form is here seen withdrawing in order that a higher manifestation of the spirit may take place.