Garden of the Corpse Flower: A Sumatran Jungle Quest for the Rarest Flower on Earth
An angry, 260 pound Sumatran Orangutan is enough to spoil any vacation. To illustrate this, jungle guides in the Gunung Leuser rainforest enjoy showing visitors the scars they carry.
Jensen lifted his shirt, revealing deep laceration wounds across his back. “Mina did those,” he grinned. “This was her too,” he boasted, exhibiting a chunk missing from his wrist. “She’ll find us at some point in our trek today. She likes me.”
In the past two years of writing Backpackology, we’ve sought out secret CIA cities, midget theme parks, and Taliban adventures. We’ve met feral jungle children, drunken headhunters, and Viet Cong cobra slayers. I’ve always strived to bring you the most scintillating caliber of adventure, because unless I feel like Indiana Jones at all times then I become incapacitated with despair.
This week, we are looking for flowers.
But flowers are for sissies, you might say.
To which I’d respond: you’re for sissies. Flowers, you see, are simply badass as fuck—simply badass as fuck. Especially, as you’re about to discover, the ones that grow deep in the jungles of West Sumatra…
For this week’s Photo Travelogue—a botanical expedition for the rarest, most fascinating flower on earth: Amorphophallus titanum, The Corpse Flower—I’m going to show you that the kingdom of flora holds just as much wonder, violence, and mystery as the kingdom of fauna; it merely occurs on a different time scale, like a different plane of existence—an epic drama unfolding silently and invisibly beneath our noses. The premise of this drama is the ruthless struggle for light, water, and nutrients, for which each plants evolves its own unique battle strategy.
Sumatra is special for botanists in that the survival strategies of its plants are all completely horseshit insane.
Take for instance this cheery-looking vegetal:
To survive in the nutrient-poor soils of Sumatra’s highlands, the lithe and lovely Nepenthes plant has acquired an appetite for flesh. Most often its dinner comes in the form of frogs or insects, although the larger species enjoy a menu of rats, lizards, and small birds. It hunts by emitting a sweet scent from its playfully-colored pitchers, baiting animals to peek inside, promising fun and jokes. When the prey falls into the lip of the pitcher it does not find jokes, but instead a pool of acid. The slick, waxy walls of the trap make escape impossible and thus the prey is liquefied into milkshake for the plants enjoyment.
More macabre and fascinating is the rarest flower in the world: Amorphophallus titanum—the Corpse Flower.
What makes it so fascinating?
For that we must step back to a foggy, April night in 1878, in the same Sumatran jungle in which I stand today.
Moonlight dappled the forest floor as Italian explorer-botanist Odoardo Beccari hacked through liana vines. Beccari was a rivetingly odd man who, like many other scientists of his time, enjoyed more enthusiasm than sense. Having spent the previous two years stuffing birds into glass jars in the jungles of Papua and Borneo—contracting malaria, smallpox, and elephantiasis on one ankle along the way—Beccari was inspired to conduct the first biological survey of Sumatra. This endeavor involved tracking down majestic new species and observing how they responded to different bullets fired from his elephant gun.
Beccari was about to make one of the most shocking discoveries in the history of natural science.
On the bank of a starlit river, Beccari stumbled upon a peculiar crimson flower blooming directly out of the ground. It was the most striking inflorescence the botanist had ever seen—bell-shaped with green ribbed sides and a dazzling scarlet-frilled margin. Rising from its center, a yellow spadix rose up like a spire.
His local porters identified the specimen.
“Bunga bangkai!” they stammered, which forebodingly means, “dead body flower.”
Beccari likely would have sealed it in a jar, but there arose an issue: This cryptic “dead body flower” was quite large indeed. While the stem rose to eight inches, the flower itself soared over ten feet in height—the largest inflorescence on earth.
Per scientific protocol, Beccari whacked it down with his machete.
He then butchered it to smithereens, scribbled some notes, and exhumed the 130lb tuber root—which was so big his journal exclaimed, “Two men could scarcely carry it!”—before dragging it back to Italy.
This is where the story gets weird.
Nobody believed him, of course. Beccari’s 130lb potato discovery was appraised with vigorous chuckles. Undeterred, Beccari buried the tuber in soil, intent to prove his colleagues wrong.
Years rolled by. As the rest of the scientific community moved on to research things that are relevant, Beccari sadly watered his vegetable. Every spring a single leaf would sprout, growing tall through the summer and inflating his hopes, before wilting and dying by fall.
It wasn’t until 1889, after ten years of waiting, that an enormous pod burst from the soil.
Thousands of aristocrats flocked to attend the world’s largest blossom, anticipating rare beauty and the exotic scent of Sumatra. The pod had grown so large that scientists reached the improbable conclusion that it was pollinated by elephants.
The truth—as they soon learned—was far more disturbing.
Beccari’s flower was actually pollinated by flesh-eating carrion beetles and carcass flies.
To which a discerning reader might ask, how does a flower attract flesh-eating carrion beetles and carcass flies?
The aristocracy of Europe was in for an unpleasant surprise.
The bloom began with a fat, yellow phallus erecting out of the pod, racing skyward at an astonishing 12cm per day. Reports describe scandalized governesses protecting young woman from “so indecent a sight.” Once the phallus reached ten feet in height, the flower splayed open, offending bystanders with its rancid perfume. Just trying to describe the stench, the poverty of the English language is revealed. The unambitious compare it to decomposing dog. In reality, it smells more like a dog that’s funneled a gallon of malt liquor, smoked a bong in a frat house, shit on itself, vomited on itself, violently choked on the vomit, died in a corner, and then began the slow and natural process of decomposition. The flower contains some of the foulest compounds on earth—dimethyl trisulfide (limburger cheese), trimethylamine (rotting fish), dimethyl disulfide (dead body), isovaleric acid (sweaty socks), benzyl alcohol (sweet floral scent), phenol (Chloraseptic), and indole (mothballs).
Surprisingly it’s not the odor, nor the record height, nor the ‘giant misshapen phallus’ that makes Amorphophallus titanum so interesting…
Our hunt begins in the vibrant rainforests of Gunung Leuser, Aceh Province.
Centuries ago the Corpse Flower may have flourished in the jungles of Aceh, but due to habitat loss, only a few blossoms have been reported in the last decade. Aside from Gunung Leuser National Park, which remains the last stronghold of the mighty Sumatran Orangutan, most of Aceh’s rainforests have been destroyed to make room for another plant…
Harvested for their full-bodied beans, Sumatran Coffee Trees are cultivated for another purpose, to produce a horrifying beverage called Kopi Lawak—more commonly known as “Civet cat coffee” or “Petrified cat shit steeped in kettle water.” Perhaps I made up the latter name, but that’s essentially what it is: The Asian Palm Civet (more accurately a weasel) grazes on ripe coffee beans before sharting them out in malformed turds, which are collected, roasted, and sold at an exorbitant $700 per kilo—making it the most expensive coffee in the world.
I’m not shitting you.
Civet coffee is allegedly superior to normal coffee because the civets only select “the highest quality beans” (which I doubt, as Civets are also known to eat garbage). Marketers also claim the beans undergo fermentation in the animal’s digestive system, where enzymes penetrate the bean and “improve” the flavor profile (hahaha).
Cutting south from Aceh, we trace the Barisan mountain range to Bukittinggi in West Sumatra—the heartland of the Corpse Flower. It is region of soaring volcanoes, raging rivers, deep caves, steaming hot springs, and the highest caldera lake in Southeast Asia—though these attractions are an afterthought for most visitors, who come here for one reason:
The bizarre and breathtaking flora.
The truth is that Amorphophallus titanum isn’t really the largest flower in the world. In fact it isn’t even a flower. It’s actually a spadix of many flowers (like a lilac) wrapped in a spathe that resembles a giant petal, making it the world’s “largest un-branched inflorescence.”
The title of “world’s largest singular flower” belongs to another denizen of West Sumatra…
Spanning a meter in diameter and weighing twenty pounds, the Rafflesia arnoldii is a stem-less, leaf-less, root-less holoparasite. Like most cool things, it is extremely rare and can only grow on vines of the Tetrastigma plant, marauding it of nutrients. While its vendetta against the Tetrastigma plant remains unexplained, what is known is that the Rafflesia pollinates by mimicking the smell of a rotting corpse to attract flesh-eating carrion beetles and carcass flies—much like the Amorphophallus. For this reason it is also dubbed “The Corpse Flower,” however the Corpse Flower we’re hunting is far more elusive—and the reason why is spectacular.
In order for an Amorphophallus to reproduce, there must be another Amorphophallus blooming at the exact same time in close proximity—which is highly, highly unimaginable. The reason why—and the reason why our quest is so daunting—is that the Amorphophallus titanum only blooms for twelve hours once every ten years. Because of this, and the fact that it can only grow in the remote jungles of West Sumatra, the Amorphophallus titanum is purported to be the rarest flower on earth.
West Sumatrans speak of it as if it were a phantom. Putra Dawot—a trekking guide who spends most of his time in the jungle—has only seen three Corpse Flowers in his entire life. Ulrich Rudolph—a local horticultural enthusiast and organizer of botanical tours—has only seen the flower twice.
Though my odds of seeing one appeared slim, I had an Ace up my sleeve:
I had met a random dude in an online chatroom named “Al Dava” who said he knew of a Corpse Flower about to bloom in the woods outside his cousin’s village.
“That’s called a scam,” explained Ulrich.
“He said he didn’t want any money.”
“Usually when a Corpse Flower blooms everyone in Bukittinggi knows about it months in advance. It’s a huge event,” Ulrich scratched his head. “Have fun getting raped, I guess.”
The next afternoon, Al Dava picked me up on his motorbike and we drove into the countryside.
Al and his cousin belonged to the Minangkabau of West Sumatra—a matrilineal tribe famous for their buffalo worship and exotic, soaring rooftops. Insisting that the flower only blooms at night, Al detained me in his cousin’s hut all day, asking me endless questions while his aunt force-fed me offensively spicy eggs.
When you’re trekking through starlit jungles with a flaming bamboo torch in one hand and a machete in the other, flower hunting seems a rugged and manly pastime. An hour had passed—an hour of fording muddy rivers, ripping leeches out of blood-soaked socks, and stubbing our toes over roots in the dark—when my nostrils started to burn. Either the Amorphophallus was close or we were nearing Al’s previous victims—the stench of corpses curdled the night breeze.
Yelling pierced the darkness as Al and his cousin dashed ahead. When I caught up they were standing on the edge of a clearing.
In the pale moonlight, a massive inflorescence towered overhead, its magnificent yellow spadix and scarlet frills soaring up from the forest floor. The smell was heinous beyond imagination. Like burying your face in the ass crack of a trucker.
Al squealed with delight, “Incredible!”
For a long moment we all stood there in silent awe.
Then the Sumatrans lost interest, before they started chain-smoking cigarettes and throwing rocks at bats.
“Mister! Mister!” Al shouted. “My cousin says there are many more blossoms like this.”
“He says he sees them all the time when he comes to collect betel nuts.”
“He’s mistaken,” I chuckled.
The man stammered in Indonesian.
“He says you can see tomorrow.”
The next morning Al’s aunt appeared with more spicy eggs, before Al’s cousin showed me another Amorphophallus titanum.
And then another…
And then another—this particular specimen stood an incredible 10”3’, but wilted and collapsed just before we found it.
While the abundance of blooms could be a matter of lucky timing, I theorize that the Corpse Flower’s blossoms were bio-synchronized…
By the scientific authority vested in me by Wikipedia and the wise Google Search Engine, I now present to you my “Bamboo Alarm Clock Theory:”
Bamboo poses a number of mysteries for scientists; the most scintillating of which is that every 65-100 years, an entire sub-species of bamboo will flower and then die en masse. What makes this so unbelievable is that regardless of each plant’s geographical location—be it in the forests of Sichuan, an arboretum in Amsterdam, or a hippie’s bathroom in Williamsburg—every single member of that species will flower and die at the exact same time, in perfect synchronicity, as if by hocus-pocus Jesus trickery. Scientists are positively dumbfucked.
One theory suggests a sort of cellular alarm clock. I suspect that Corpse Flowers use this same alarm-clock mechanism to coordinate blooms, ensuring that they can pollinate within such a stunted time frame.
But that still doesn’t explain the hundreds of non-blossoming Amorphophallus titanums we found in the forests outside Palembah village—an impossibly higher density than any of Sumatra’s national parks or the celebrated Palupuh Botanical Reserve. What’s most astonishing is that nobody seems to know about it—not even the local villagers, who were instead killing off the giant flowers out of fear, believing it caused a horrifyingly titled “skin-fall-off sickness.”
Off course this was nonsense, which Al demonstrated by vigorously rubbing the flower’s spathe with his face (then screaming in pain to his cousin’s alarm) (then laughing for several minutes at his clever joke).
I’ve since written to the World Wildlife Federation, UNESCO, and Indonesian National Park Services (PHKA), informing them of Palembah village and suggesting that the forest be surveyed and considered for reservation status.
I hope that some day Palembah jungle makes it to magazines and documentaries as the Palembah Amorphophallus Titanum Reserve. I hope that some day this special place doesn’t end up like Aceh, or Riau, or the other three million hectares of Sumatran rainforest that disappear every year—chopped down by loggers or coffee farmers and squandered for a $700 bag of weasel shit.
For now, the jungles surrounding Palembah village remain an unsung natural wonder, a West Sumatran travel secret, the last garden of the Corpse Flower.
For an ill-fated jungle misadventure in search of a rare monkey, check out the travel story “Bungle in the Jungle, Five Days in the Hide: A Search for the Rare and Elusive Nasalis Larvatus“
Or check out more fun facts and pretty photos by heading to Borneo in the geological Photo Travelogue, “The Biggest Darkness: A Journey to the World’s Largest Cave Chamber” Or peruse from other titles by clicking the “Photo Travelogues” tab at the top of the page.