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Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Rock Star


Titan arum brings carny excitement to the nation’s quiet conservatories.


image

Titan Arum in bloom, Huntington Museum, August 1999

Photo: The Huntington Museum

What does it take to draw a crowd?

Rarity, monstrosity, sex and stink.

Titan Arum,  the corpse flower, has it all.  The flowering of Amorphophallus titanum, especially outside its native Sumatra, qualifies as an event.

Just a year ago, bracing for their conservatory’s specimen to bloom, botanists at the University of Connecticut called the inflorescence “the horticultural equivalent of twin NCAA basketball championships,“ conjuring images not just of spectacle but height,  hoards,  and the smell of a locker room.

This past weekend, the San Francisco Conservatory swarmed with visitors. Our friend Pulitzer-Prize winning writer and editor .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) just happened to be there: 

“Who knew that I was taking my parents to the equivalent of a conservatory mosh pit? Poor Dad decided to skip the saunter through the conservatory. He stretched out on the grass and took a nap. Mother and I found ourselves caught up in the line of gawkers, but we didn’t know what we were inching up to.

“I could hear someone saying to a docent, ‘Can’t they just put some heat on it and get it to open?’

“Eventually we made our way to the garden court, where ‘Ted’ was on display. Something about the scene reminded me of Botticelli’s Venus painting. This giant green plant with a giant green hood was ready to pop open like the seashell in the painting. Of course, so I read on the printout, once it popped open the prize would be nothing like a goddess. Instead it was going to be a bloom that smelled like dirty gym socks or worse. The way the crowd was shooting photos of the big tuber, you’d think you were at the Oscars….

“Ted’s a rock star.”

The plant grows from a huge tuber, “the size of an average man,” and musters a flower six feet high and three feet across. Its fetid smell attracts pollintating flies and beetles in the wild, but getting titan arum to produce seed in captivity is tricky. (See this site, too, for lots of titan arum links.)

As usual, our interest is less botanical than social: this raunchy flower’s capacity to generate human interest, to come on, as Maria writes, like a “rock star.”

imageAmorphophallus titanum

According to the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, the West discovered Titan Arum in 1878, when Dr. Odoardo Beccari found it growing “in the rainforests of central Sumatra.” A specimen bloomed for the first time in the U.S. in 1937, at the New York Botanical Garden.

Fairchild, in Florida, “started the Titan craze that has swept the country when in 1998,  ‘Mr. Stinky,’ produced the first documented Titan bloom in nearly 60 years in the United States. In addition to being the largest unbranched inflorescence in the world, the Titan is known for the intensely powerful stench that is released when it blooms.”

Seven years ago, the media descended on Fairchild, and Mr. Stinky “was viewed worldwide as bloom was documented with a web cam, updated at five minute intervals, until the spadix collapsed on May 18. News of the plant went ‘round the world’ with coverage on television, radio and newspapers throughout the United States and in countries including Canada, Great Britain, Australia, Holland and Sweden. Visitors and scientists traveled to Fairchild from around the globe to witness this sensational natural phenomenon.”

In August 1999, Huntington Gardens claimed that its titan bloom was the 11th in the U.S., “the first in California.”  University of Wisconsin’s plant bloomed in June 2001. As scientists there reported,  the botany “building seldom hosts anything more exciting than a few skittering birds and a smattering of preoccupied botanists. But for the past two weeks, a traffic-jam’s worth of curious plant-lovers has goggled the 8-foot flower structure.”

It’s not just the matter of titan’s size but its shape, of course. As one of Woody Allen’s ladies admitted, the phallus attracts and repulses at the same time. Kind of like Mick, you get double fixation, plain to all but hard to verbalize, especially on the 6 pm news.

Reporters find easier to deal with the smell:

Craig Allen & “Mr. Stinky,” Fairchild Gardensimage

“like really rotten cheese”

“like dirty socks”

“like a portapotty”

“dead fish”

or as it’s called in Indonesia, Bunga Bankai: “rotten meat.”

San Diego, Fullerton, and Davis, California, London’s Kew Gardens, Disneyworld and Atlanta all have had their moments in the sun, as local titans there rose, flowered, stank, and withered. With the passing of years, names for the flowers have changed from the generic “Mr. Stinky” to today’s more personable “Tabatha” (at UC Davis)  and San Francisco’s “Ted.”

As the nation’s botanical gardens compete for popular attention and public funding, the titan arum is a bazooka. It has publicity potential no rare orchid or endangered grass ever will command. When the Huntington Gardens’ titan bloomed in ‘99, Jerry Pournell wrote after going to see it in its rotting glory,

“What this really did was make us aware again of the Huntington Library, which is a wonderful resource that we had nearly forgotten; we hadn’t been out there in nearly 20 years, which is ridiculous. I have had a scholar’s access to the Huntington Library, but I hadn’t used it in decades… I’ll renew those credentials…The lines for non-members today were enormous, and I’ve just learned that they had to close the Huntington because of the crowds.”



Posted by Julie on 06/01 at 02:25 PM
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