10 Fascinating Facts About Corpse Flowers

Big, smelly, rare, phallic—these adjectives all describe Amorphophallus titanum, commonly known as the corpse flower. While native to western Indonesia, the plant is currently taking Washington, D.C. by smelly storm: The last of three—count 'em, three—corpse flowers to bloom this summer began its stinky blossoming this week at the United States Botanic Garden. In honor of the occasion, here's some trivia to celebrate one of nature's stinkiest plants.

1. THE CORPSE FLOWER'S LATIN NAME IS NSFW (OR BRITISH TV).

No, it's not just you: Amorphophallus titanum really does look like a large, lumpy penis. In fact, the plant gets its scientific name from three roots: amorphos (without form), phallos (penis), and titanum (giant).

Can't say the plant's Latin name in polite company without blushing? Thanks to David Attenborough, the English naturalist and TV personality, you can also opt to use its common name, Titan arum. While narrating BBC nature documentary series "The Private Life of Plants," Attenborough thought the corpse flower's proper name was too improper to say on TV, so he coined a less-scandalous moniker. Or, you could simply go with its Indonesian name, bunga bangkai.

2. A 19TH-CENTURY ITALIAN BOTANIST 'DISCOVERED' THE CORPSE FLOWER.

Western scientists first learned of Amorphophallus titanum in 1878, when Italian botanist Odoardo Beccari came across the enormous plant growing in the rainforests of Sumatra, a large island in western Indonesia. The specimen he recorded had a circumference of around 5 feet, and its height was around 10 feet.

Beccari tried to ship the flowering shrub's corms, or giant underground tubers, back to Europe, but French customs ended up holding them under an order designed to prevent the spread of the grapevine pest Phylloxera. Still, a few seeds survived against the odds, and a single seedling was sent to the Kew Botanic Gardens in England, where Beccari had once studied. There, it flowered in 1889. In 1926, when the same corpse flower bloomed again, the crowds were so large that police were brought in to control them.

3. THE CORPSE FLOWER GROSSED OUT THE ENGLISH (IN MORE WAYS THAN ONE).

Not surprisingly, the corpse flower quickly gained notoriety in Europe: An English artist hired to illustrate the plant is said to have become ill from the odor, and governesses forbade young ladies from looking at it, for obvious reasons.

4. A CORPSE FLOWER ISN'T REALLY A SINGLE FLOWER.

Technically, a corpse flower isn't a single flower; it's a flowering plant with clusters of blooms. The plant consists of a thick central spike, known as a spadix, with a base that's encircled by two rings of "male" and "female" flowers. A large, frilly leaf called a spathe envelops these flowers to protect them.

5. CORPSE FLOWERS ARE, AS THEIR LATIN NAME SUGGESTS, ENORMOUS.

Aside from its smell, a corpse flower's most noticeable quality is its sheer size. The plant holds the record for the world's largest unbranched inflorescence (a fancy term for describing a floral structure made of many smaller individual flowers), and it can reach heights of up to 12 feet in the wild. Cultivated corpse flowers are smaller, measuring anywhere from 6 to 8 feet.

6. THEY DON'T HAVE AN ANNUAL BLOOMING CYCLE.

Years, or even decades, can pass before a corpse flower reaches peak bloom. As the big moment finally approaches, the plant's bud grows several inches per day before slowing down its growth. Two protective leaves, called bracts, shrivel and fall off the spathe's base. Then, the spathe unfurls over roughly 24 to 36 hours, giving curious onlookers just a small window to see (and smell) its maroon-colored insides for themselves.

7. THERE'S SCIENCE BEHIND THE CORPSE FLOWER'S TERRIBLE SMELL.

When a corpse flower blooms, the spadix heats up to temperatures of up to 98°F as the plant unleashes a stench akin to rotting flesh. "Those pulses of heat cause the air to rise, like a chimney effect," Ray Mims, a spokesperson for the U.S. Botanic Garden, explained to Washingtonian magazine. "It gets the stench up in the air" to attract pollinating dung beetles and carrion beetles, who are drawn to the scent of rotting flesh.

Experts have identified different molecules responsible for titan arum's stink, including dimethyl trisulfide (like limburger cheese), trimethylamine (rotting fish), and isovaleric acid (sweaty socks).

8. CORPSE FLOWERS GROW FRUIT WHEN THEY'RE POLLINATED.

Once a corpse flower finishes blooming, it doesn't die. The spathe withers and collapses after a few days, and if pollinated, the plant soon produces hundreds of small, golden-colored fruits. These berry-like seeds are eaten and dispersed by animals such as birds and the rhinoceros hornbill, or harvested in captivity by garden conservation scientists. (No word on how they taste, as they're reportedly not suitable for human consumption.)

Once the seeds ripen from gold to dark orange, and then to dark red—a stage that lasts for five or six months—the corpse flower goes dormant. Then, it sprouts as a tree-like leaf during its next few life cycles as it stores away energy from the sun. Each cycle, the leaf grows bigger and bigger, before dying. Once the plant's corm is fully replenished, it finally blooms again.

9. THE CORPSE FLOWER WAS ONCE THE BRONX'S OFFICIAL FLOWER.

In 1937, the New York Botanical Garden became the proud home of America's first recorded corpse flower bloom. Two years later, yet another flower bloomed in the Bronx garden. Borough president James J. Lyons was so tickled, he designated Amorphophallus titanum as the Bronx's official flower. ''Its tremendous size shall be symbolic of the fastest-growing borough in the City of New York,'' Lyons said, according to The New York Times. Meanwhile, news crews covering the event are said to have nearly fainted from the smell.

The Bronx used the corpse flower as a symbol until 2000, when then-borough president Fernando Ferrer, aiming to overhaul the municipality's image, changed its official flower to the day lily. "I hate to think of the corpse flower as the Bronx flower, because people would think the Bronx and think, 'The Bronx stinks,'" Michael Ruggiero, then senior curator for horticulture at the New York Botanical Garden, told the Times. "The Bronx is a people place, and the corpse flower is not a people plant. The day lily is, and therefore is a good fit for the Bronx."

10. THE CORPSE FLOWER IS THREATENED BY HABITAT LOSS.

Corpse flowers aren't just rare—they're also vulnerable to habitat loss and destruction, as vast swaths of Sumatra's rainforests are chopped down for timber and to clear ground for oil palm plantations. According to one estimate provided by the Kew Royal Botanic Gardens, Indonesia has now lost around 72 percent of its original rainforest cover. This contributes to the flower's demise, and also threatens important pollinators like the rhinoceros hornbill.

8 Ways Science Can Boost Your Halloween Fun

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iStock

Halloween is all about embracing the supernatural, but science shouldn't entirely fall by the wayside during the spookiest of holidays. Here are a few ways it can actually improve your holiday, from making trick-or-treating easier to fooling your brain into thinking you're eating tasty treats even though you're nibbling on candy cast-offs.

1. Slow the decomposition of your Halloween jack-o'-lantern.

A Halloween display of five jack-o-lanterns
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You don't have to be an expert gardener to keep your jack-o'-lantern looking fresh all Halloween season long. While scouting out pumpkins, pick hard, unblemished ones and steer clear of those with watery dark spots. These splotches indicate frost damage.

Hold off on carving until right before Halloween so your gourds won't rot—but if you can't resist, try squirting their exteriors with lemon juice after you're done slicing and dicing. The acid inhibits pumpkin enzymes, which react with oxygen and cause browning. A light misting of bleach solution will help keep fungus at bay. Some apply vegetable oil or Vaseline to prevent shriveling and drying. We experimented with various techniques in this video.

For extra TLC, you might even want to bring your jack-o'-lanterns in at night if temperatures dip; if you live in a hot and humid area, extend its life by placing it in the fridge overnight. Try using glow sticks or LED lights instead of flesh-singeing candles.

2. Use apps to plan a treat-or-treating route.

Three children in Halloween costumes trick-or-treating
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Thanks to technology, trick-or-treaters (and their hungry adult companions) can now scout out which neighbors are doling out the best candy and which are sticking with Tootsie Rolls, apples, and toothbrushes. Simply download the app for Nextdoor, the neighborhood-based social network, to check out an interactive "treat map" that lets users tag whether their home is handing out treats, and what that treat is.

Since safety is far more important than sugar, guardians should also consider adding a tracking app to their arsenal come Halloween, especially if their kid's venturing out alone. The Find My Family, Friends, Phone app gives the real-time locations of trick-or-treaters, provides alerts for when they turn home, and also comes with a "panic" button that provides emergency contact details when pressed.

3. Optimize your candy's flavor (even if it's SweeTarts).

Hard candies and gummies strewn across a table
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Not crazy about this year's Halloween loot? Fool yourself into thinking those black licorice pieces and peanut chews taste better than they actually do by eating them after you scarf down the chocolate and Sour Patch Kids. According to a 2012 study published in Psychological Science, being aware that these items of candy are your very last candies actually tricks the brain into appreciating them more (and thus thinking they're tastier than they really are).

Meanwhile, a 2013 study from the same journal found that creating a candy-eating ritual enhances flavor and overall satisfaction. Nibble the ridged edges off a Reese's peanut butter cup before tackling the creamy center, sort the M&Ms by color, and take your time unwrapping a chocolate bar.

4. Create a DIY fog machine with carbon.

Dry ice in a glass bowl
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Save money at Party City by creating your own fog machine at home. When dropped in water, dry ice—or frozen carbon dioxide—creates a gas that's a combination of carbon dioxide and water vapor, but looks like the fog you'd see rolling through a haunted graveyard [PDF].

5. Eat sort-of-heart-healthy Halloween candy.

A stack of dark chocolate chunks on a dark stone background
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Halloween candy isn't always bad for you. While shopping for this year's trick-or-treat bounty, steer clear of sugary confections and milk chocolate mini-bars. Opt for dark chocolate treats instead. Research suggests that our gut microbes ferment the antioxidants and fiber in cocoa, creating heart-healthy anti-inflammatory compounds. Plus, dark chocolate or cocoa also appears to help lower blood pressure for people with hypertension, decrease bad cholesterol, and stave off cardiovascular disease and diabetes, among other benefits.

6. Analyze data on Halloween candy trends and give the people what they want.

Lollipops
5second/iStock via Getty Images

Thanks to data science, you can make sure you're giving out the best treats on the block. Bulk candy retailer CandyStore.com combed through 10 years of data (2007 to 2016, with a particular focus on the months leading up to Halloween) to gauge America's top-selling sweets. They created an interactive map to display their results, which includes the top three most popular Halloween handouts in each state and Washington, D.C. Be prepared for plenty of stoop-side visitors and adorable photo ops.

7. Bake better Halloween treats with chemistry.

Frosted Halloween cookies shaped like ghosts and pumpkins
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Cooking is essentially chemistry—and depending on your technique, you can whip up chewy, fluffy, or decadent Halloween treats according to taste.

Folding chunks of chilled butter into your dough will give you thick, cake-like cookies, as will swapping baking soda for baking powder. When butter melts, its water converts into gas, which leaves lots of tiny holes. If the butter flecks in question are colder and larger, they'll leave bigger air pockets. As for the baking powder, it produces carbon dioxide gas both when it's mixed into the dough and when it's heated. For an extra boost in texture, you can also try adding more flour.

Prefer chewier cookies? Start out with melted butter in the dough, and stick with plain old baking soda.

And for extra-fragrant and flavorful baked goods, opt to use dark sugars—like molasses, honey, and brown sugar—because they're filled with glucose and fructose instead of plain old sucrose. As cookies bake, they undergo two processes: caramelization, in which the sugar crystals liquefy into a brown soup; and the Maillard reaction, a chemical reaction between the dough's proteins and amino acids (flour, egg, etc.) and the reducing sugars that causes tasty browning.

8. Take deep breaths to stay calm in haunted houses.

A brown-haired woman in a red polka dot blouse standing with a frightened expression next to a spider web.
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Halloween can be tough for people with anxiety or low thresholds for fear. While visiting a haunted house or watching a scary movie, remember to take deep breaths, which fends off the body's flight-or-fight response, and reframe your anxiety in your mind as "excitement." It's also a good idea to schedule spine-chilling activities after an activity that triggers feel-good endorphins—say, after a walk to check out your neighbors' awesome Halloween displays.

Some Mathematicians Think the Equal Sign is On Its Way Out

Paperkites/iStock via Getty Images
Paperkites/iStock via Getty Images

A growing number of mathematicians are skeptical that the equal sign, traditionally used to show exact relationships between sets of objects, holds up to new mathematical models, WIRED reports.

To understand their arguments, it’s important to understand set theory—a theory of mathematics that’s been around since at least the 1870s [PDF]. Take the classic formula 1+1=2. Say you have four pieces of fruit—an apple, an orange, and two bananas—and you put the apple and the orange on one side of a table and the two bananas on the other. In set theory, that’s an equation: One piece of fruit plus one piece of fruit on the left side of the table equals two pieces of fruit on the right side of the table. The two sets, or collections of objects, are the same size, so they’re equal.

But here’s where it gets complicated. What if you put an apple and a banana on the left side of the table and an orange and a banana on the other side? That’s clearly different from the first scenario, but set theory writes it as the same thing: 1+1=2. What if you switched the order of the first set of objects, so instead of having an apple and an orange, you had an orange and an apple? What if you had only bananas? There are potentially infinite scenarios, but set theory is limited to expressing them all in only one way.

“The problem is, there are many ways to pair up,” Joseph Campbell, a mathematics professor at Duke University, told Quanta Magazine. “We’ve forgotten them when we say ‘equals.’”

A better alternative is the idea of equivalence, some mathematicians say [PDF]. Equality is a strict relationship, but equivalence comes in different forms. The two-bananas-on-each-side-of-the-table scenario is considered strong equivalence—all of the elements in both sets are the same. The scenario where you have an apple and an orange on one side and two bananas on the other? That’s a slightly weaker form of equivalence.

A new wave of mathematicians is turning to the idea of category theory [PDF], which is based in understanding the relationships between different objects. Category theory is better than set theory at dealing with equivalence, and it’s also more universally applicable to different branches of mathematics.

But a switch to category theory won’t come overnight, according to Quanta. Interpreting equations using equivalence rather than equality is much more complicated, and it requires relearning and rewriting everything about mathematics—even down to algebra and arithmetic.

“This complicates matters enormously, in a way that makes it seem impossible to work with this new version of mathematics we’re imagining,” mathematician David Ayala told Quanta.

Several mathematicians are at the forefront of category theory research, but the field is still relatively young. So while the equal sign isn’t passé just yet, it’s likely that an oncoming mathematical revolution will change its meaning.

[h/t Wired]

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