Faculty voice:

Peter Carrington: A rare and spectacular event

June 25, 2014

Peter Carrington is presently the assistant curator of the W. J. Beal Botanical Garden, where he is the edible and toxic plant specialist. He has been an assistant instructor in the plant biology department since 2005 and has been teaching edible and toxic plants for 39 years. He has also taught wilderness survival techniques since 1977.

Peter CarringtonI always wanted see a corpse flower in bloom because it is the "giant sequoia" of the philodendron family. I first dealt with this family of plants when I was instructed that one could eat skunk cabbage, a woodland plant in this group that we have here in Michigan.

I was big into wild edibles and knew the plant well. I cooked it to perfection, and it tasted so outstanding for the first 2 seconds—then my mouth and throat caught fire.

It turns out that it is filled with glassy needles, a feature that makes most of the plants in this family inedible. And I have since realized that skunk cabbage is not food, in the normal sense.

The corpse flower species is a rare and spectacular member of this group with the extra added fascination of smelling like long dead meat. Its scientific name, Amorphophallus titanium has one of the greatest translations ever—the giant misshapen phallus. Who could resist that?

I missed the first one we had at MSU in 2010 by a day, and it was collapsed and terrible looking when I tardily arrived. What a sight they must make in the wild—a surrealistic giant six-foot tall bloom with its skirt-like meat-colored wrap in the shade of the great trees and vines of the Sumatran jungle.

I have since found that some of the species in this exotic genus have their tubers cooked for food, if one knows the techniques. But just seeing it flower is a rare event and one usually has to be at a significant institution, like MSU, for the honor.