To Save the Corpse Flower, Horticulturalists Are Playing the Role of Matchmakers

Genetic diversity is needed to produce viable plants. Scientists are using animal breeding methods to conserve the titan arum

A corpse flower stands tall in the center of the image surrounded by foliage at the US Botanic Garden
To counter a lack of biodiversity in corpse flowers, horticulturalists took inspiration from “studbooks,” a method used by breeders and zoos to prevent inbreeding U.S. Botanic Garden via Flickr under Public Domain

The corpse flower, Amorphophallus titanium, has been captivating the world since its discovery in 1878 by Italian botanist Odoardo Beccari. This rare and unusual plant only blooms about once every decade (or longer) when conditions are optimal, leading to a shallow genetic pool threatening the corpse flower’s existence in both the wild and in botanic gardens, reports Doug Johnson for Undark.

With fewer than 1,000 individuals left in the wild and 500 specimens living in private and public botanic collections, genetic diversity is limited, and these flowers are all too closely related. Inbred plants produce unviable seeds, which could potentially eliminate any hope of preservation reports, Samantha Drake for the New York Times.

To counter this, horticulturalists took inspiration from “studbooks,” a method used by breeders and zoos to prevent inbreeding, reports the New York Times. Studbooks are a genetic map, traditionally used to keep track of animal pedigrees and demographic data. Based on the studbook, the best matches that are genetically diverse are used to create the healthiest offspring.

In 2019, the Chicago Botanic Garden spearheaded a project called “Tools and Resources for Endangered and Exceptional Plant Species,” or TREES for short, to create a studbook-like database that other botanic gardens can use to preserve endangered plant species, reports Undark. Jeremie Frant, a conservation scientist at the Chicago Botanic Garden, tells the New York Times that project developers chose a total of six rare plant species to preserve, including the corpse flower, that produce seeds that can’t survive traditional seed storing methods or don’t produce enough seeds naturally.

Most of the plants in the TREES project have recalcitrant seeds, meaning they can’t withstand freezing or drying methods used in seed banks and die. Recalcitrant seeds need water to survive, and in the wild, animals eat recalcitrant seeds and then expel them in their scat. Tropical plants native to hot and humid climates tend to have recalcitrant seeds.

Corpse flowers can reproduce both asexually and sexually. When they reproduce asexually, they produce multiple plants that get sent out to botanic gardens, but they lack genetic diversity through this method of reproduction, reports Undark. A corpse flower only blooms for 24 to 36 hours before the blossom collapses. During this time, botanists need to pollinate it artificially to produce more offspring and genetic variation. Scientists also use this time to collect pollen to share with other botanical gardens. The Chicago Botanic Garden has also started to save pollen to send to other gardens worldwide for cross-pollination for a national corpse flower conservation project.

In July 2020, a corpse flower named “Sprout” at the Longwood Botanical Gardens in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania bloomed for the second time after it first bloomed in 2016 at the Chicago Botanic Garden, Elaine Ayers reported for Atlas Obscura this past summer. Sprout arrived at the Longwood Botanical Gardens in 2018, and from there, Longwood’s senior horticulturist Joyce Rondinella cared for Sprout. Pollen was collected when Sprout bloomed, and soon after, the plant was artificially pollinated by a human, a role beetles would normally play in the wild.

“The pollen came from Chicago, and I hoped it was a good pollen,” Rondinella told Atlas Obscura in a Q&A. “But I wouldn’t know for nine to 12 months,” which is the time it takes for the plant to bear fruit.

Collaboration like the one between Longwood Botanical Gardens and Chicago Botanic garden is needed to save critically endangered species of plants. TREES researchers tell Undark that they hope to save rare species of plants like the corpse flower and use the principles around TREES to save other plant species when the need emerges.

“We at botanic gardens have to work together to save some species,” Frant tells Undark. “Because we can’t do it on our own.”