The Corpse Flowers of Sumatra

Dylan Thuras is a guest blogger on Boing Boing. Dylan is a travel blogger and the co-founder of the Atlas Obscura: A Compendium of the World's Wonders, Curiosities, and Esoterica, with Joshua Foer.

Carnivorous plants have always held a special place in my heart. Watching a Venus Flytrap catch its dinner still fascinates me. Recently another type of plant that is just as strange and wonderful as the carnivores has caught my attention; Corpse Flowers.

You might imagine that smelling the world's largest flower would be a lovely experience. You would be very, very wrong.

The Rafflesia arnoldii, a rare and endangered plant known as the "giant panda of the plant world" bears the world's largest flower. A parasitic plant the Rafflesia lives most of its life within the roots of another plant. Eventually a blossom breaks through the root, grows up to three feet wide, and smells almost exactly like a dead body.

Known as a corpse flower or Carrion flower the Rafflesia releases a scent that smells like a rotting corpse, and the flowers petals bear a similar coloration to that of rotten meat. And while the flower smells terrible to humans, it smells like dinner to the carrion beetles and flesh flies which swarm all over the corpse flowers helping them to pollinate.

While the Rafflesia gets big, it has nothing on another corpse flower, the Amorphophallus titanum.


Translated from the greek Amorphophallus titanum means "giant misshapen penis," and while the Rafflesia has the world's largest flower, the titan lays claim to the largest unbranched cluster of flowers in the world. At full size the titan can reach 9 and a half feet tall and 10 feet in circumference. The titan also generates a great deal of heat, the tip reaching approximately human body temperature, which helps strengthen the illusion of rotting meat that attracts the meat eating insects. It, like the Rafflesia, smells terrible.

Link to the extraordinary flora category in the Atlas which is in desperate need of more plant wonders, a list of titans in cultivation, and to an online carnivorous plant museum. (Apparently some of my other boingboingers have a love of corpse flowers as well, previous boingboing mentions here, here, and here)


  1. Fun Fact:

    “The popular name titan arum was invented by the broadcaster and naturalist Sir David Attenborough, for his BBC TV series The Private Life of Plants, in which the flowering and pollination of the plant were filmed for the first time. Attenborough felt that constantly referring to the plant as Amorphophallus on a popular TV documentary would be inappropriate”

  2. try calling your beloved “my little rafflesia” in tender moments and see how long you can get away with it.

  3. Hm, plants that smell like meat. I wonder if that has any beneficial applications for vegetarians.

  4. One of these just died from over watering at a botanical garden in Orange County CA. And here I was getting ready to take the kids.

  5. And for those of you that can’t do without, yes- they sell corms of A. titanum on eBay.

  6. Learning about these plants were one of the best part of the botany class I took last semester. They’re actually in the same family (Rafflesiaceae) and so are pretty closely related.

    A lot of plants are pollinated by flies and do the same sort of heating up/looking/smelling like rotten meat. Skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) which is quite common in my area (NE USA) is one of the earliest blooming plants and produces enough heat to actually melt its way through the snow. It also smells terrible, but only if you step on it.

  7. Oops…looks like I got my families mixed up. Amorophophallus titanum is actually in the same family as the skunk cabbage (Araceae), which is different from Rafflesia.

  8. The respirator is a bit much. They have some at the university here and lots of people come to see it- without respirators.

  9. #12, do they come to see it in full bloom, and are they around it all day? She could be a botanist.

  10. I have a Stapelia gigantea (starfish flower) that blooms for me twice a year. It has a rather rank smell and maggots often appear in the center.

  11. #5 : I think you’ll find the one in the Huntington gardens is still rotting just fine. It’s the one in Fullerton that’s been drowned as #8 pointed out.

  12. Managed to see a Raffelasia in the wild while we were in Sabah in 2006. Certainly a worthwhile experience if you are in the neighbourhood.

    #3 I think you’d have to have a death wish to call your your beloved “my little rafflesia” (especially when she is a botanist!)

  13. The University of Bonn (Germany) has an Amorphophallus Titanus, called “Titanenwurz” in German.

    It drew quite a lot of attention as it blossomed in 2003; I wanted to see it (advertised as the largest flower of the world), but it was nearly impossible to get in because the queue of people was so long. It was 274cm high and weighted 78 kg at that year.

    Here is a gallery of the event:

    Quite a show. :)

  14. #14, that’s not funny. i know two entire families that were killed when they smelled something unpleasant.

  15. My wife who has a black thumb, was given some bulbs of a small flowering plant called “Paper Whites”..She was really excited that she got these to grow and bloom!! Her excited died when the flowers bloomed. They really smell just like ass.

  16. I’ve visited the Berkeley corpse flower a couple of times when they take it over to the SF Conservatory of Flowers. If I’m not mistaken, though the stench is overwhelming to most, not everyone can smell it. A genetic thing? I forget.

  17. probably one of the most popular “weird” plants in existance. read two blogs about this plant today alone, and I’ve known about it for ages. it’s also in the news on at least a yearly basis.

  18. .
    It just occurred to me how fortunate we are to have bees and birds to pollinate flowers. Imagine if they all died out. Picture if you will a planet covered in corpse-flowers instead of roses and jasmin.

    And I always thought my girlfriend the botanist was being nice when she said my unit smelled like a flower. Now I’m not so sure.

    I’m going to work on my personal feng shui. I guess.

  19. Neat! I’ve been working on a game about Guerrilla Gardening and decided awhile ago to use Amorphophallus as the base for a preternaturally sweet smelling flower used to attract people for a bit of ironic botanical humour. It was fun turning the plant into 16-bit era pixel art.

    You can spot two of them in the screenshot in this post on my dev blog

  20. I think I recognise my workplace, the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. They have several (10) titan arums, I think they now have one flowering most years — this year, two flowered on the same weekend!

    I missed the plant in full flower, but photographed it just after when it had just begun to wilt.

    Apparently the smell is much, much worse in the evening after the gardens close.

  21. #26, Anonymous:

    I wonder how vegetarians feel about carnivorous plants.

    The Protocols of Vegetarianism state that they’re ‘slightly evil’. That’s a bit more evil than predatory fungi (‘negligibly evil’) and a bit less than carnivorous protozoa (‘moderately evil’).

    It’s refreshing to see that you care so much about the opinions of vegetarians- we are a much misunderstood race.

  22. #14 but when you are at something all day you get used to the smell

    Unless the something you are at is, say, a natural gas or hydrogen sulfide leak. In both cases you would smell rotten eggs quite strongly. In both cases you would also get used to the smell. And then die. The former from asphyxiation , the latter from all your mucus membranes turning to sulfuric acid.

    1. Natural gas is odorless. That smell is added by the gas company so that you will notice the leak.

  23. I am a big fan of amorphophallus and it’s many varieties. I grow 4 different types. The tallest grows to about 5 feet tall and 5ft across. Spectacular plants that are easy to grow. Rafflessia depends on a specific host plant because of it parasitic nature. Easy to grow and some varieties are hardy here in southern NJ. A. Titanum is avaiable for under $50.00 in many catalogs. Glenn Hudson

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