Little Stinker: A Corpse Flower's Smelly Relative

They don't have to be big to make a stay in the living room unpleasant (because yes, I'm nuts enough to keep them in the one room where everyone relaxes)...

The first smelly flower I was treated to from this tiny pot. Far from the last.

6 inches tall, if that. Granted, I've got a few aroids that should have even smaller flowers (because while I love the giants, miniatures are adorable too), but this is the first of the more moderately sized ones to have given me blooms. And its name? Typhonium albidinervum.

First off, whoever came up with that genus name, thank you; it's perfectly poetic how it sounds. These very close relatives of Sauromatum (where the common "voodoo lily" S. venosum is nestled) are found throughout southern and Southeast Asia into Australia (though genetic studies are suggesting perhaps many of the Australian plants should be in their own group, just as Sauromatum is), and have a habit of making relatively simple leaves and multiple blooms throughout their growing season. This one, the most floriferous tuber is working on its fourth right now.

Simple arrow-shaped leaves, though most are usually formed flatter than this crinkled one.

Like many of the aroids, T. albidinervum is unfortunately a rather data-deficient plant (the IUCN index states just such). Recorded as being fairly widespread, from southern China south through Laos and Thailand (and probably several countries in between), there is little other information readily publicly available on it beyond some horticultural images. As a winter-dormant species, it experiences perhaps not cold seasons where it lives but must withstand the seasonal droughts that typify the subtropical latitudes, dying back to clusters of tubers/corms/what have you that they classify the storage organs as (as in the Araceae the terms overlap quite readily) and returning to growth with the arrival of the rains. Habitats where the soil is rich, well-drained, and at least deep enough for the tubers to stay buried are where these can be found.

Closer view of the inflorescence's base, the constriction that helps retain pollinators and ensure the flowers receive or deposit pollen. Another developing bloom can also be seen in the back off to the left.

In a properly lit location this species develops leaves around a foot or so tall, with patternless petioles and arrow-shaped lamina (one main pointy end, and may or may not have two distinct rear "wings" that spread to the side, or are just merged with the main leaf altogether) around 3-6 inches in length; one well-established tuber may support a handful of leaves, creating a nice tropical looking mini canopy. A similar structure is seen in Caladium and other garden aroids, though those are often much larger leaves. Typically, one or two leaves are the first structures produced when dormancy is broken. However it's not long after that the more interesting part of the plant shows itself.

Side profile; the spathe is usually just as long as the spadix, and may curve forward in tandem with it or roll back.

Appearing first as a small, slender cone-like object within the groove at the base of the leaves, the inflorescence expands over a period of several days to a couple weeks, until it's around half to 2/3 the height of the leaves, balancing on a thin little stalk that looks like it ought to snap from the weight above it. This structure is not one single flower; rather, what we often attribute to being petals or similar is actually a highly modified bract or leaf, expanded and colored (here a strange hue of maroon-purple within, mottled greens on the outside) to take on the job of attraction that petals usually do while the flowers themselves cluster, simple and unassuming, within the different sections of the swollen base. Like many aroids this plant has both male and female flowers, the two typically maturing at different times so as to avoid self-pollination. Each is a simple stalk or ovary tipped with the reproductive structures, either a stigma or the pollen sacs of the anther.

Looking down the throat of the spathe, where the male flowers are visible at the base of the spadix.

Female flowers are typically receptive first, hidden down in the very bottom of the spathe; as the flower ages these stop receiving pollen and the male flowers then release theirs. This order also sometimes pairs with a loosening of the base of the spathe, that constriction which formerly confused and trapped wayward insects (often flies) to get them to shed the pollen they've brought in now releasing them to be covered again and take this new batch somewhere else.

While the flowers are receptive or shedding pollen, the rest of the bloom is hard at work attracting pollinators with something other than color. As a corpse flower relative, of course, one couldn't expect much less. Oil-producing glands both within the spathe and particularly covering the long, slender yellowish-orange spadix release aromatic compounds that scream "come hither" to any and all rot-loving organisms within the area, smelling of a rather odd and unpleasant mix of dead meat and something else I haven't quite identified. While this smell is not as powerful as those odors released by some of the bigger corpse flowers, one or two blooms sitting in the corner of the room are definitely noticeable across the space, and when blooms have unexpectedly opened without my noticing they have resulted in hunts for "the dead thing behind the couch." The smell can last for a couple of days, and a few days after which if no successful pollination has occurred the bloom will begin to fade and shrivel up. Subsequent blooms may be produced throughout the growing season afterward.

If pollination is successful, then while the spathe and upper part of the spadix will wither away, the base will swell, and the ovaries develop tiny greenish-brown "berries" (perhaps better called a drupe, since each has only one large, pit-like seed within, though that might be subjective). The plant may not produce any further blooms, devoting its energy to making sure those seeds are healthy and ready to germinate once they scatter off the stalk and the flesh around the seed decays away or dries off. Meanwhile, underground the plant is also building up stores of energy in the tubers, and usually creating one to several new growth points that eventually split off into their own tubers, creating a dense cluster on the ground (or in the pot).

One more shot at an angle; this bloom has the spathe not cooperating with the spadix, flopping off to one side as the stink-factory sticks up high.

If you can find a growing pot or a dormant tuber available somewhere, this is an extremely easy species to grow (and perhaps something fun to gross out family with; the blooms look nice, and if they haven't figured it out already telling them to take a sniff is hilarious). Like most other aroids they appreciate an organic-rich soil, but one that is well-drained; compost mixes with lots of perlite or large-grain sand can be ideal. Tubers should be kept dry until they start growing so as to avoid rot, and then the pots should remain just moderately moist during the growing season to avoid the same (and never dry, otherwise the plants will act like any vegetation suddenly deprived of water). Regular feedings, preferably with a phosphorus-heavy fertilizer to help promote both blooms and tuber growth, should be done every few weeks in moderate recommended concentrations. And, good lighting is another important factor; turns out here that even two hanging lamps of grow lights suspended up high enough for the other aroids not to burn in them is not quite strong enough for this species to avoid lanky, etiolated leaves, so strong artificial bulbs or a location with good diffused sunlight throughout the day are a must. If you can adapt them to an outdoor summer growing season, perhaps even better.

Once those needs are met, all that's needed is to wait, and watch. They grow fast, and it won't be long before even a single tuber has multiplied to fill any little pot, sending out smelly blooms all summer long.

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