Around midday last Monday I got an urgent call from my friend C.J.: “Come across the street right away! You’ve got to see this!” I know better than to disobey C.J., so I asked no questions, just shoved my feet into some sandals, grabbed my keys and phone, and dashed out my front door. In the driveway of the house directly opposite mine—a house I’d never once entered during the six and a half years I’ve lived on this street—was a Honda with with a hand-lettered sign taped to its rear window.
“Corpse flower (Amorphophallus titanum) UP DRIVEWAY – Thru Gate. Viewing ===>”
A corpse flower! This was definitely going to be good.
C.J. was there, along with about ten other people, including the across-the-street neighbors, Kyle and Susan.
And the corpse flower, which did not disappoint.
The corpse flower. In the conservatory. With a visitor. This beauty—its owners call it “Victoria”—took 14 years to bloom. It was (I’m guessing) almost eight feet tall from bulb to tip.
Arum is this week’s word because corpse flowers are sometimes called “titan arums”: Arum—also known as Araceae—is the family to which they belong. The flowers of arums are borne on a type of inflorescence called a spadix: It’s the tall, um, amorphophallus in the photo. Covering the spadix is a leaf-like bract called a spathe.
Victoria in close-up. The scent was only faintly fetid on the day I visited.
I’d learned a lot about flowers and their parts when I wrote copy for a floral-arrangement company called Calyx & Corolla (itself named for two flower parts). But we’d never covered spadix and spathe, words I learned from my neighbor Kyle the corpse-flower cultivator. Spadix comes from a Greek word meaning “palm branch”; spathe, also from Greek, means “a broad, flat blade,” and is related to spade and spatula and also—here’s something that surprised me—to spay, which originally meant “to cut with a sword.”
And arum? That word I knew: lots of familiar plants, like anthuriums, are arums. Arum also is Greek, but for a while (1500s to 1700s, according to the OED), the word was often spelled aron or Aaron, a folk-etymological alteration that wasn’t exclusive to English. In Latin, the wild arum was called barba aaron, “the beard of Aaron,” a reference to the Biblical figure, brother of Moses.
For more about the corpse flower on my block, here’s a description from the Instagram account of Damon Tighe, a biotech educator who attended the viewing:
Someone close to Lake Merritt in downtown Oakland had been babying this for 14 years and it just decided to bloom yesterday! This specific individual, named Victoria, came from a plant that bloomed and was fertilized at the UCB Botanical Garden in 2004.
Corpse Flowers get their common name because they let off the smell or rotting flesh which attracts flies to pollinate them. Bees and butterflies often get all of the pollinator love, but after bees flies are the most important pollinators. Many of the foods we eat are fly pollinated. If it weren’t for flies their would be no chocolate, and it would be hard to get mangos, blackberries, cherries, spicy peppers, onions, carrots and a whole bunch of other crops.
The Corpse Flower is native to Sumatra where it goes by the name bunga bangkai. The bloom takes place over just 2-3 days. The large columnar spadix begins to warm and produce odors while the spathe that starts wrapped around it begins to unfurl, exposing the meaty red innards. At the base of the spathe there are bands of male and female flowers. The female flowers emerge first and then the male flowers which limits the possibility of self fertilization.
Bunga bangkai! That’s really fun to say.