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Zeus the corpse flower plant is resprouting, but this time not as a flower

(Posted on Monday, Dec. 5, 2022)

Zeus the corpse flower
Zeus is starting to unfurl into its leaf form.

Zeus – one of Austin Peay State University’s two corpse flower plants – delivered quite a show for its first-ever bloom last summer. Now the plant is resprouting – albeit not in its flower form.

Thousands of people trekked to the Sundquist Science Complex greenhouse in early June to witness Zeus grow into a flower structure towering about 6 ½ feet tall. The flower unfurled into a burgundy magnificence while also emitting a rancid stench of cheese, sweat, garlic, decomposing meat, feces and rotting fish.

Now, the plant – having returned to its dormant underground state for several months – is resprouting into its other visible form – a giant leaflet structure that resembles a small tree.

You can watch Zeus grow on a livestream via the Department of Biology’s corpse flower plant webpage. You also can see Zeus through the greenhouse window at the end of Hallway A on the first floor of the Sundquist Science Complex.

If all goes well, Zeus will bloom again, probably 2-3 years after June's bloom.

Zeus needed 10 years to bloom for the first time. Most corpse flower plants – known to scientists as Amorphophallus titanum or titan arum – need 8-10 years to produce their first bloom. Once a plant blooms, however, the corm – a giant underground tuber – is already big enough to support a much quicker bloom.

Even then, the blooms are unpredictable. The second bloom could happen in as little as two years – or take another seven years.

Corpse flower plants have odd lifecycles. Here’s the lifecycle, according to the Chicago Botanic Garden’s website. The plants have two main stages – the leaf stage when it grows into a giant leaf with many complex leaflets, and the flower cycle when it blooms and tries to reproduce.

Zeus in bloom last June.

The leaf cycle

In the leaf cycle, the leaf grows rapidly, sometimes reaching a height of 15 feet. Even though the leaf looks like a tree at that height, it’s a single leaf with many leaflets.

The leaf gathers the sun’s energy for 12-18 months, storing nutrients in the ever-enlarging corm until the above-ground part of the plant (the leaf) finally dies.

The plant goes dormant for three to six months.

When the plant emerges from dormancy, it either starts a new leaf cycle – this time with a bigger leaf supporting a bigger corm – or enters the flower cycle. It’s difficult to know which cycle is about to start.

Zeus in its leaf cycle in 2019.

The flower cycle

A plant enters its first flower cycle 7-10 years into the plant’s life and lasts only a day or two (24-36 hours).

A flowering structure can grow up to 8 feet tall, and it emits that horrible corpse odor when it blooms. A 2010 scientific study found that the corpse flower smells like a combination of cheese, sweat, garlic, decomposing meat, feces and rotting fish. The plant uses the odor to attract pollinators like flies and carrion beetles.

If the plant blooms and is pollinated (often by hand in a cultivated environment), it will produce fruit for the next nine months or so before re-entering dormancy and restarting the cycle. Zeus didn’t produce fruit and re-entered dormancy during the summer.

Once a plant blooms, it may bloom again in as little as two or three years.

Meet Zeus’ sibling, now in its leaf cycle

Zeus has a “sibling” that’s the same age but smaller. Still, the second plant could enter its first flower cycle in the next few years.

Once that happens, it will earn a nickname just like Zeus.

The second plant is in its leaf cycle, and you can see it standing behind Zeus on the livestream.

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