TORONTO, ON, Monday, September 17, 2018: A Toronto Zoo first, our corpse flower (Amorphophallus titanium), appropriately named Pablo “Pe-ew”caso, began to bloom on Thursday, September 13, 2018 at approximately 4:00 pm. This species only blooms for eight to 36 hours and this is the first time this species has bloomed in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), and the fifth time one has bloomed within Canada! It was a very exciting few days at the Toronto Zoo with the Corpse Flower Special Exhibit being open to public over the course of four days, beginning Thursday, September 13, 2018 at 9:30 am through Sunday, September 16, 2018, which included opportunities to see the corpse flower in various stages of pre-bloom, bloom and post-bloom. Hours of operation were extended to ensure guests had the opportunity to experience this horticultural phenomenon.
The Zoo's Horticulture Division currently cares for six specimens of Amorphophallus titanum – the titan arum, or, more descriptively, the corpse flower or stink plant. However, one of our five-year-old species began to bloom early at approximately four years ahead of schedule. Native to the Indonesian island of Sumatra, the titan arum is related to peace and calla lilies. But, as you might guess from its name, the corpse flower's blossoms don't exactly smell like roses. Instead, this species relies on carrion beetles and flies for pollination, which it attracts with an aroma that – yes – resembles rotting meat. It's been called the plant kingdom's worst odour.
“Having a corpse flower bloom four years ahead of schedule in our very own collection, is a once in a lifetime opportunity for the Toronto Zoo and it brings to the forefront the Zoo’s horticultural program as a whole,” says Paul Gellatly, Curatorial Gardener, Toronto Zoo. “The corpse flower is one of the world’s largest and rarest flowering structures, one of Sumatra’s most coveted and threatened plants, which only blooms sporadically on average, every couple of decades.”
Grown from seed, it can take six to ten years for a plant to produce its first flower, after which it can take several more years for it to bloom again. One of the reasons it takes so long between blooms is that the titan arum produces one of the largest flowering structures in the entire world. The pale central "tower" of the inflorescence, known botanically as a spadix, is typically two metres tall! This is wrapped in a single large spathe – a modified leaf that looks like a big bell – shaped petal. To match the corpse flower's aroma, this spathe has a dark red, ridged interior, which looks just like a piece of exposed flesh. Flies and beetles attracted by the odour crawl down the spathe to the base of the spadix, where the small flowers that produce pollen and seeds grow, enabling pollination. Since these pollinators tend to be nocturnal by nature, the blooms usually open in the late afternoon and then begin to wilt by the next morning. It's a lot of effort for a short window of opportunity. Our titan arum specimens arrived at the Zoo in 2013 from Niagara Botanical Garden, so it could still be years before the rest of the specimens share their unmistakable blossoms, and aroma, with us.
This plant species is unique because of how infrequent it blooms, and because of how little time it has to be pollinated by only three species of beetle. Plants use all sorts of techniques to encourage animals to pollinate their flowers. Bright colours, perfumed fragrances, and sweet nectar encourage butterflies, bees, hummingbirds, sunbirds, and even bats to visit flowers, inadvertently carrying pollen and fertilizing seeds along the way. But while sweet-smelling, colourful flowers have been cultivated extensively by humans, this is not the only strategy that plants use for pollination.
Like much of Sumatra's wildlife, including Sumatran orangutans and Sumatran tigers, the titan arum is threatened by habitat loss. Not only is space an issue, but as forests decline, so do hornbills, which are the corpse plant’s primary seed distributor. Thankfully, through advances in horticultural techniques, the intricacies of breeding this unusual plant are slowly being uncovered, allowing us to maintain them in managed care as insurance against a crash in their wild population.
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About The Toronto Zoo
The Toronto Zoo is Canada’s premier zoo and a national leader in saving wildlife to ensure the rich diversity of nature for future generations. More than a tourist attraction, the Toronto Zoo boasts a number of leading programs for helping wildlife and their natural habitats – from species reintroduction to reproductive research. A world-class educational centre for people of all ages, the Toronto Zoo is open every day except December 25 and attracts approximately 1.3 million visitors each year.