A corpse flower has opened its petals and spread its signature scent throughout the arboretum for the second time this month, leaving faculty members with a limited window of time to study the plant and its unusual behavior of heating up before coming into full bloom.
The Titan Arum, known colloquially as the corpse flower, is one of the few plants in the world that is able to increase its internal temperature.
The plant does this in order to volatilize its signature stench over a large area to attract carrion-feeding insects, which it uses to pollinate itself.
What’s unclear is how the plant heats up. There have been few tests that attempt to understand how the plant achieves a dramatic temperature rise.
Testing remains difficult because the period of time available to test the plants is limited. While it may take years of preparation for the plant to develop a flower, the actual bloom time could be as short as a day, said Gregory Pongetti, the living collections curator for the Fullerton Arboretum.
“The one that flowered in 2006 that was here also flowered in 2000,” Pongetti said. “Each time it does produce the flower, it is really only open and active for about 24 hours.”
Pongetti spends a significant amount of time studying the corpse flower alongside Edward Read, the manager of the CSUF Biology Greenhouse Complex. The two men use the rare bloom periods to better understand how the plants heat themselves.
“One of my hurdles is getting equipment to actually study it,” Read said. “I borrowed the thermal camera from a herpetologist in the (biology) department, and he was great … we were able to get the (thermal) images.”
To the surprise of Read and his associates, the self-heating spadix—the large green “stalk” that extends from the flowering stage of the plant—was not evenly heated.
“When we were testing the temperature the tip of the spadix was close to 10 degrees hotter than the rest of the plant,” Pongetti said.
Read is not the only one conducting thermal experiments on corpse flowers. Researchers at Cornell University have undertaken similar tests, he said.
“They used a thermal imaging camera also,” Read said. “Their tip (of the spadix) got 106 degrees fahrenheit, which is really hot.”
Read has been cultivating a batch of Titan Arum in the Biology Greenhouse Complex in order to make the plant easier to study.
“If we have regularly one or two blooms a year, that will enable them to actually dedicate time to study it,” he said.
Currently there are no formal studies on the plant taking place at CSUF, Read said, but studying the plant is still important because it could lead to great scientific discoveries.
Read specifically pointed to the use of Taq Polymerase, a key enzyme scientists use today to copy DNA strands.
“Taq Polymerase comes from aquatic bacteria that grows in thermal pools,” Read said. “You never know what’s going to come out of it, so we don’t know what’s going to come out of this—a plant that actually heats up is really fascinating.”