The alien-like blooms and putrid stench of Amorphophallus titanum, better known as the corpse flower, draw big crowds and media coverage to botanical gardens each year. In 2015, for instance, more than 75,000 people visited the Chicago Botanic Garden to see one of its corpse flowers bloom. More than 300,000 people viewed it online.
But despite the corpse flower’s fame, its future is uncertain. As of 2019, roughly 500 specimens were living in botanical gardens and some university and private collections—but records show that they’re closely related. This lack of genetic diversity could make them more vulnerable to a host of problems, such as disease or a changing climate.
The corpse flower isn’t doing much better in its native home of Sumatra, where its numbers are dwindling because of deforestation for lumber and crops. In 2018, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) listed the plant as endangered. There are fewer than 1,000 individuals still in the wild.
To combat the lack of genetic diversity in the corpse flower and six other species with shallow gene pools, the Chicago Botanic Garden has spearheaded Tools and Resources for Endangered and Exceptional Plant Species, or TREES. The program is promoting widespread genetic testing across partnering botanic gardens, as The New York Times reported in December. This lets participants create a database of the plants’ family trees, so to speak, to make more informed breeding choices and increase genetic diversity.