When a Corpse Flower Blooms, Crowds Swoon

A flower with the fragrance of a ripe corpse attracts a big following when it blooms

04-01-2002 // Christine Mlot

I MISSED THE BIG STINK. One week last summer, Madison, Wisconsin, became obsessed with the imminent blooming of a rare tropical plant, evocatively called titan arum. Like everyone else, I'd been keeping tabs on the progress of this giant protuberance growing in a tub at a University of Wisconsin (UW) greenhouse, and made a daily habit of checking its Web site, complete with a webcam trained on the plant's every move. Soon the plant was expected to open its skirt-sized bloom--which it does just two or three times in a 40-year lifespan--and release the flower's signature odor, a gagging scent that gives the titan arum its other common name, the corpse flower.

When I couldn't connect with the Web site one evening, I thought nothing of it. A computer server was temporarily down, said a kid at the help desk. But then the nightly news reported that the flower had indeed unfurled, attracting thousands who wanted to see the event live. So much more traffic had streamed to the Web site--at a rate of 225 hits a second--that the university's servers ground to a halt, for the first time ever.

This was not just summer amusement for a Midwestern college town. From California to Florida to Europe, crowds and a carnival-like scene materialize whenever this potted plant blooms--and these days more and more of them are doing so. In 1993, the number of corpse flowers in gardens and greenhouses got a big boost, when botanists accompanying television naturalist David Attenborough on an expedition to the plant's native Sumatran rain forest brought back seeds from a wild flower and distributed them to facilities around the world. Like latter-day Johnny Appleseeds, growers swap pollen and seeds and spend years coaxing the plants to bloom. Over the past three years, a half dozen have flowered in the United States alone; one 1999 event at the Huntington Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California, drew 76,000 onlookers.

What is it about a mere plant that requires police and porta-potties to handle the ensuing crowds? Before it blooms, the corpse flower bears little resemblance to a flowering plant. A stalklike structure with the texture of an underinflated basketball juts out of what looks like a giant head of the Chinese cabbage bok choy. The bok choy fringe then briefly unfurls, revealing a deep burgundy interior and numerous tiny flowers awaiting pollination.

Explaining the plant's allure, UW botanist Paul Berry says that in many ways Amorphophallus titanum is more like an animal than a plant. Its stalklike structure moves almost perceptibly, ratcheting skyward at a rate of four inches a day. The plant can grow taller than a man and, in full bloom, smells like an overripe one. Like its relative the skunk cabbage, the corpse flower heats up to near human body temperature--the better to exude the sulfuric gases that attract carrion beetles and other insects that do its bidding. Its interior, the color of fresh carrion, possibly adds to the attraction.

Whatever the plant's formula, it works on humans, too. "People are hungry for this stuff, for nature and natural history," retired UW botanist Hugh Iltis observed after fielding questions from some of the 20,000 people who queued up to see and sniff the bloom.

It may also be that the titan arum, rare and endangered in its tropical rain forest home, has struck on the survival strategy that the poinsettia, potato and countless other plants have successfully mined: Make yourself so appealing, nutritious or, in the case of the titan arum, outlandishly entertaining that people will take over the hit-or-miss work of pollination. With the corpse flower, we've been lured not only to fill in for carrion beetles, but to stand by and spectate as well.

By the time I got to the greenhouse the morning after it bloomed, Madison's corpse flower had closed up its frilly skirt and vented only faint puffs of stench. But it probably won't be the last chance I'll get to see and smell the plant. Houseflies that swarmed around its bloom spread pollen, provided by scientists, to all its tiny flowers and fertilized them. Months later 1,000 persimmon-orange berries were ripening, and by spring, UW botanists were ready to send fruit-encased titan arum seeds to growers around the country. Get ready--soon the big stink could be coming to a greenhouse near you.

Christine Mlot is a Madison, Wisconsin-based science writer who often stops to smell the flowers.

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