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Rare corpse plant ready to bloom -- why the stench is so thrilling

March 15, 2012|By Tina Susman
  • Nearly there: This titan arum plant at Cornell University is ready to bloom, and according to the university, it will be one of only about 140 such cultivated blooms in history.
Nearly there: This titan arum plant at Cornell University is ready to bloom,… (Vitaliy Darovskikh / Cornell…)

Reporting from New York —

Not since the last time a huge, foul-smelling plant bloomed has such excitement abounded over a huge, foul-smelling plant blooming, but the titan arum is more than just a plant, and if tales of the so-called corpse plant are to be believed, its scent is more than just a stink.

This particular specimen is housed at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., and if it blooms in coming days, as expected, it will be one of only about 140 such cultivated blooms in recorded history, according to the university, which has set up a livestream so viewers can watch the event. On Thursday, the titan arum looked more like a slightly chubby cornstalk, gawked at by a few early-morning curiosity-seekers. That should change in the next week.

You might think that titan arum is just another monstrous, maladorous growth best left in its native jungles of Sumatra, where its vile-smelling flowers sustain the rare species by drawing pollinators with a hankering for rotting flesh. Hence the nickname -- corpse plant.

You'd be wrong, said Karl Niklas, the Liberty Hyde Bailey professor of plant biology at Cornell, who has been keeping watch over Cornell's corpse plant since the plant began showing signs of blooming; the bloom would be the first since the university acquired the plant 10 years ago. The plant has been growing more than one inch each night, sometimes as much as 2.5 to 3 inches, said Niklas, who expects it to be in full flower within a week.

In a phone interview, Niklas, unable to control his excitement at soon being confronted by a large, rancid-smelling mess, gave a quick briefing on titan arum. Lesson No. 1, said Niklas: "Don't call it a flower!" The bouquet that eventually will emerge from within the folds of the plant's giant leaf is actually made up of thousands of tiny flowers and is called an inflorescence.

When fully matured, the display will be more than five feet long and resemble a color that Niklas described as "purply-orangey-red. A magenta."

Let's cut to the chase here. "It's going to smell like rotting flesh. And it will look like rotting flesh," Niklas said cheerfully. That raises the question: How does one handle the odor? "You open the window," he said.

Given the species' large size, rarity and odor, titan arum bloomings make news whenever they occur in greenhouses. Back in 1999, the Huntington Library in San Marino had a titan bloom. Ted the Titan, as the titan arum at UC Davis is known, has bloomed five times, most recently in June 2011. Two months later, though, staff at the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh admitted defeat after their corpse plant showed every sign of being ready to bloom, only to produce a new leaf but no flowers.

Staff there are still hoping to use the special T-shirts produced for the event, with the "2011" adjusted to read 2012 or whatever year the plant decides to bloom.

Those of you hoping to cultivate your own titan arum at home are likely to be disappointed. They require constant warmth and humidity to emulate their native Indonesia, and they're too large for most flower pots. The leaf alone can grow as high as 20 feet, and the bloom that emerges from its center rises even higher.

Niklas compared the thrill of watching a corpse plant unfold to seeing two of the world's other rarest plants in the wild: the Argyroxiphium, or silversword, found only in small parts of Hawaii; and the Welwitschia plant that thrives in the desert of Namibia, in southwest Africa.

Like the corpse plant, neither is suitable for a crystal vase or a Valentine's Day gift, but that doesn't make them any less exquisite.

"We live in a world that is filled with remarkable and wonderful things, and if we don’t appreciate them, we don’t appreciate what it means to be alive," said Niklas. "Yeah, it's a big, smelly ugly-looking plant, but it's amazing we live in the same world as this thing."

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tina.susman@latimes.com

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