New plant discovered by UofU biologist smells like roadkill

Feb 7 2012 - 1:19pm

Images

University of Utah botanist Greg Wahlert, a postdoctoral researcher in biology, and the upper part of a new plant species he discovered, Amorphophallus perrieri. The plant is in the same family as philodendrons, taro root, skunk cabbage and anthurium, which is common in floral arrangements. Photo Credit: Lee Siegel, University of Utah
Close-up of the reddish-purplish, leafy "spathe" surrounding the central "spadix" of the newly discovered plant species Amorphophallus perrieri, which grows to 5 feet tall, one-fourth the height of its more famous relative, the "corpse flower" or Amorphophallus titanum. While the spadix sometimes is referred to as the plant's "flower," in fact the lower part of the spadix, hidden by the spathe, is covered by hundreds of tiny flowers, each only a fraction of an inch big. Photo Credit: Cameron McIntire, University of Utah
University of Utah botanist Greg Wahlert, a postdoctoral researcher in biology, and the upper part of a new plant species he discovered, Amorphophallus perrieri. The plant is in the same family as philodendrons, taro root, skunk cabbage and anthurium, which is common in floral arrangements. Photo Credit: Lee Siegel, University of Utah
Close-up of the reddish-purplish, leafy "spathe" surrounding the central "spadix" of the newly discovered plant species Amorphophallus perrieri, which grows to 5 feet tall, one-fourth the height of its more famous relative, the "corpse flower" or Amorphophallus titanum. While the spadix sometimes is referred to as the plant's "flower," in fact the lower part of the spadix, hidden by the spathe, is covered by hundreds of tiny flowers, each only a fraction of an inch big. Photo Credit: Cameron McIntire, University of Utah

SALT LAKE CITY - The famed "corpse flower" plant - known for its giant size, rotten-meat odor and phallic shape - has a new, smaller relative: A University of Utah botanist discovered a new species of Amorphophallus that is one-fourth as tall but just as stinky.

The new species, collected on two small islands off Madagascar, brings to about 170 the number of species in the genus Amorphophallus, which is Greek for "misshapen penis" because of the shape of the plants' flower-covered shaft, called the inflorescence or the spadix, says Greg Wahlert, a postdoctoral researcher in biology.

The 4.5-foot-tall plant, Amorphophallus perrieri, began reeking Friday, Feb. 3 as it approached the peak of its bloom in a campus greenhouse. A day later, Wahlert began cutting down the plant in stages so the spadix, the surrounding leafy spathe and other parts could be pressed, mounted and submitted to the National Museum of Natural History in Paris as part of the process of designating the plant a new species.

That won't be official until about a year from now after Wahlert publishes a scientific paper formally describing the species, which can grow to 5 feet high, and how it differs from relatives in the genus, including Amorphophallus titanum - also known as the "corpse plant," "corpse flower" and "titan arum" - which grows to 20 feet high.

After Wahlert first collected specimens of the new plant in 2006 and 2007 and discovered it was a new species, he found the Paris museum's herbarium held a dried specimen collected from one of the same islands by French botanist-geologist Joseph Marie Henri Perrier de la BAC/thie (1873-1958), who didn't realize it was a new species. So Wahlert is naming it for Perrier.

"Perrier collected it in 1932, and it sat in the museum until we dug it up and compared it to the other specimens and the plants that I had collected," Wahlert says. "Perrier spent years working on scores of other plant groups [and describing hundreds of other new species] and just never got around to it."

The corpse flower smells like rotting meat to attract the flies and beetles that pollinate it. Wahlert had expected the new species would smell like cheese, which it did briefly when it began blooming Feb. 3. But the odor soon grew worse - much worse - and more like its giant relative.

"I smelled rotting roadkill out in the sun reeking," says University of Utah biology Professor Lynn Bohs, in whose lab Wahlert works. "There's also a note of public restroom - a Porta Potty smell."

Wahlert added: "I would say carrion and feces. When you get right up to it, it's really foul and disgusting."

Another Utah researcher collected volatile gases emitted by the plant "and will identify the components of the smell," Wahlert says. Only a small group of Amorphophallus species have been tested for odors, but the known aromas range from rotting meat to anise, cheese, dung, fish, urine, spice and chocolate, he adds.

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