Morphy, the College's corpse flower, blooms early

by Arielle Beak | 11/6/18 2:55am

Stop and smell the roses — but perhaps not in the Class of 1978 Life Sciences Center greenhouse, home of Dartmouth’s very own Amorphophallus titanum, which bloomed this past weekend. The plant, affectionately dubbed “Morphy” by a past greenhouse manager, is also known as the “corpse flower” due its rotting scent while in bloom.

This past weekend marks the third time Morphy has flowered in the Life Sciences Center. Morphy first bloomed in early July 2011, and again five years later during mid-Sept. 2016.

In the wild, the plant flowers every seven to 10 years; however, in captivity, the plant tends to bloom every five to seven years.

“It’s very unusual that it’s flowering after essentially only two years,” said engineering professor Jane Hill, who is researching Morphy in addition to performing engineering research.

Greenhouse manager Kim DeLong knew that Morphy was headed towards an early flowering when she was repotting the corm of the plant this past June.

“It weighed between 80 to 90 pounds, and because of that, we figured he was going to flower again because that’s a lot of stored energy and flowers are expensive energy-wise for all plants to produce,” DeLong said.

DeLong is all too familiar with the nuances of Morphy’s scent in past years. The smell shifts remarkably over the short time span the bloom is open.

“At one point it’ll start to smell like a dead rat in your wall, and at another point it might smell like dirty feet, or dirty baby diapers is the way I like to describe it,” said DeLong.

For Hill, the smell is most similar to a dead mouse.

“I mean, I’m not a connoisseur of death smells, but I grew up on a farm and I know what the smell of dead larger animals is like,” Hill said. “It’s much more like a mouse died and started to dessicate and rot a little bit, and believe it or not it’s a different smell.”

As eager viewers stream into the Life Sciences Center, there is also an interactive component where visitors could choose what their impression of the plant smelled like.

“We have 32 different possible options that they can choose from, and it’s sort of a citizen science component where they can choose their top three and share it with us on their way out, which is kind of fun,” Hill said.

For example, visitor Kyle Bensink ’21 thought the smell was akin to smelly feet.

The Amorphophallus titanum, often shortened to “Titan arum,” is made up of three main parts: the spadix, the hollow central appendix in the center, the spathe, the frilly leaf that surrounds the spadix, and the corm, the enormous bulb at the base that stores the energy of the plant.

The bloom itself lasts around five to seven days, and the smell lasts for around three days at most. The spathe and the hollow spadix it encircles then wilt, and a leaf emerges from the corm. Morphy is unique from other Amorphophallus titanum plants in that it produced a pup, or offset, which can be seen right next to Morphy in the greenhouse. The “baby” corpse flower won’t flower for another six years or so.

At the base of the spadix are two rings of flowers — one male and one female. During bloom, pollinators such as beetles and flies travel from the male flowers of one plant to the female flowers of another. The female and male flowers open on alternate days to prevent self-pollination.

The plant itself measures around seven feet from the soil to the tip of the spadix. The exact lifespan of the plants in the wild is unknown, but the longest recorded lifespan in captivity has been 40 years.

When in bloom, the tip of the spadix can reach up to 100 degrees Fahrenheit, which assists the plant in volatizing, or releasing the its odor. The heat also attracts insects, as it mimics the temperature of recently killed animals.

Most years, the corm produces a spike with large leaves and leaflets. The leaf wilts and dies every year, and the corm becomes dormant, storing energy as it prepares for another cycle. Every four to five years, the corm produces a flower. The plant goes through cycles of dormancy and flowering. DeLong knew Morphy would flower after seeing the spike’s progress in the current cycle.

“Once the spike got to be maybe three feet tall we could see it start to open up and [knew] that it would be a flower,” DeLong said.

One of the most distinguishing characteristics of the corpse flower is its stench — to attract beetles and flies, the corpse flower’s main pollinators, the bloom gives off a putrid aroma.

The inside of the spath is a deep shade of crimson, imitating the appearance of fresh carcasses. The main pollinators of the corpse flower are carrion beetles in the wild, as well as various flies.

Morphy first arrived at Dartmouth in 2008 as a donation from Louis Ricciardiello, a retired grower from New Hampshire.

Hill has been conducting research on Morphy with Lab Manager Kelsey Coyne and Daniella Kubiak ’20. With the help of a thermal imaging camera and temperature recording devices called thermocouples, they are measuring the temperature up the spathe.

“We’re trying to get a really good measure of the temperature change over time, and then we want to relate that to the volatile chemicals that are being emitted,” Hill said. “It’s applicable because if you know which smells attract which bugs, it could help in forensics where they are very interested in figuring out when someone died and how long corpse has been there.”

Their research focuses on breath analysis to diagnose patients with tuberculosis and cystic fibrosis. By using the same technology, they are analyzing the volatiles released over time by Morphy.

“We also want to study the thermogenesis of the plant because [the spadix] will get really hot as it blooms. It gets up to 100 degrees [Fahrenheit] in a 60 degree environment,” Kubiak said.

Biological sciences professor G. Eric Schaller has also been conducting research on Morphy. His research began two years ago when Morphy flowered last, when he realized there was little genomic research on corpse flowers. He is analyzing the transcriptional profile of the plant to study its gene expression during thermogenesis. Schaller was immediately taken with the thermogenic properties of the flower.

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“It feels warm, like a human body, so it’s pretty wild that it’s a plant that is taking on some animalistic characteristics,” Schaller said.