Transferring life from a corpse

Janice Lord, of the University of Otago botany department, shows how pollen is extracted from the...
Janice Lord, of the University of Otago botany department, shows how pollen is extracted from the Dunedin corpse flower. PHOTO: PETER MCINTOSH
Pollen from the corpse flower that attracted thousands to Dunedin Botanic Garden recently has been collected and stored at -80degC in the hope the endangered plant can be propagated in New Zealand.

The University of Otago department of botany took pollen from the plant and will wait for another flowering in New Zealand before using a very short window of time to transfer it.

The plant (Amorphophallus titanum) is famous for producing one of the world's largest flowers and a nauseating smell comparable to rotting flesh.

Long lines of people waited to see it when it opened early this month.

Assoc Prof Janice Lord said was very difficult for the plant to self-pollinate because the female and male flowers did not form at the same time.

The department had collected pollen and frozen it so next time a flower opened in New Zealand ``we can whip up there and cross-pollinate''.

``There's only been a few attempts worldwide to collect pollen long term, so I thought `let's give it a go'.''

The move would allow the plant to be propagated within New Zealand, as gardens in other cities had the plants.

``But they flower so sporadically, one garden would need two plants flowering at the same time to actually do it themselves.''

The Chicago Botanic Garden had successfully stored pollen at -80degC for two years, then used it to cross-pollinate another flower.

The corpse flower was, in fact, not a flower, rather there were hundreds of tiny flowers inside the flute-like structure that surrounded it.

Each of those flowers were either male or female.

The plant was usually pollinated by carrion beetles or flies in tropical climates.

The flower was at its most smelly on the first night of opening, which was when the female flowers were receptive to receiving pollen, and most attractive to the insects.

The insects burrowed down in the flute where the female flowers were, thinking they were in a rotting corpse. All going well, they carried pollen from male flowers from another plant and got stuck in there.

The following evening the female flowers were no longer receptive, but the male flowers opened and showered pollen on the trapped insects.

The next morning the insects - tricked into coming - flew away with the pollen, perhaps to pollinate another plant.

Once pollinated, the female flowers formed a seed, continuing the species.

Prof Lord said the plants were endangered by habitat destruction, and raising them in New Zealand would help keep them alive.

When a flower next opened in New Zealand, pollen would be taken from Dunedin on the first night, a tiny hole would be made in the base of the new flower, and pollen would be brushed on the female flowers.

david.loughrey@odt.co.nz

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