Botanical Garden Horticulturist Celebrates 10 Years With A Rare Bloom

By Haley Luke

ST. LOUIS, MO (KTVI) – Emily Colletti celebrated her 10 year anniversary being employed as the Research Aroid Horticulturist with the Missouri Botanical Gardens in a special way on June 19th. It was the same day the rare Amorphophallus titanum, or “corpse flower,” started to bloom. Colletti has been working with and cultivating the corpse flower for those ten years and is considered the garden’s expert of the flower.

“My starting date was June 19th ten years ago and (the flower) bloomed on June 19th, so that was really exciting,” Colletti said.

This is the second bloom the garden has seen. The first one was on May 19th.

Izzy- a name Colletti gave the flower after her grandmother – started to bloom around 3:30 p.m. Tuesday and then reached its peak at about 10 p.m. the same night. Its petals spanned three feet wide. This flower is very rare, and this particular bloom is approximately the 160th recorded since cultivation started in 1993. The corpse flower has been known about since 1865.

The corpse flower – an indigenous flower to Sumatra, Indonesia – got its name for several reasons. The most noticeable reason is the smell it gives off when in bloom.

“It smells like rotting flesh… it’s just rather disgusting,” Colletti said. “Tuesday night, when it was in bloom, it was nauseating.”

The smell, though strong and pungent, has a purpose. Like all plants, it gives off a smell to attract pollinators. Night time pollinators are more attracted to the strong odor of the corpse flower, Coletti said.

The name also comes from the dark purple color of the inside of the flower when it’s bloomed, which looks like raw meat. Colletti said she heard a story about the natives of Sumatra at one time believing the plant was man-eating because it can grow to be 10 ft. tall at times. The natives would cut them down to prevent the plant from eating anyone.

Because the flower is very rare, the reason for its bloom or why it closes so quickly is still unknown.

“Everyone wants to know how they flower, everyone wants to know why this one closed so fast. We don’t really know,” Colletti said. “We have to wait for science and the numbers to give us some kind of conclusions and we don’t have those right now.”

Izzy started to close in the afternoon on Wednesday. She will then start to wilt and turn brown. The tall stalk at the center, called the spadix, will collapse and eventually berries will form at its base. Then the flower will go into its dormant stage.

Because this is the second bloom the garden has seen in only a month, it means that whatever conditions are that got the first flower to bloom were what the flower needed since another one bloomed, Colletti said.

“It’s interested because they don’t all come out at the same time even if they started at the same time,” Colletti said. “They’re not real predictable at all.”

Colletti has three more plants at their early stages, but it’s still too early to see if they will be flowers or not. Sometimes they end up being just leaves, which grow very tall and look like trees.

Though she works closely with corpse flowers, she also works with the entire aroid collection in the garden, which has about 5,000 species. She said she doesn’t have a favorite.

“I have three kids. You can’t ask which one is my favorite. That’s the same with these plants. They’re so diverse,” Colletti said.