Who knew a plant could be both smelly and stubborn?
Expected to bloom this week, a specimen of the malodorous Amorphophallus titanum, more commonly known as the titan arum, had to get an assist from scientists Sunday when it refused to open at the Chicago Botanic Garden. Staff had been waiting 12 years for the flower – nicknamed Spike – to bloom for the first time, and over the last month, about 50,000 people have traveled to the garden in Glencoe, Ill., to visit the nearly 6-foot-tall, foul-smelling plant.
“The titan arum, also known as the corpse flower, is the largest flowering structure in the world,” Tim Pollak, the garden’s outdoor floriculturist, wrote for the garden’s blog. “When it blooms, it puts on a show like no other.”
Endemic to the rainforests of western Sumatra in Indonesia, the corpse flower is named for the rancid smell it emits when it blossoms – an event that occurs only once every decade or so in cultivation. Once it does bloom, the flower, “in one big, hours-long burst,” releases its rotten scent to attract the carrion beetles and flesh flies that are its natural pollinators, according to the garden’s information page.
The smell has been described as “the kind of nagging odor that, if it occurred in your kitchen, might make you wonder if there's a terrible surprise lurking at the back of the fridge,” as LiveScience puts it.
The plant is also rare, and conservationists have placed its status only a step above endangered, USA Today reports. Today, cultivated corpse flowers number at about 100, and according to the Chicago Tribune, only about one flower grows for every 100 acres in the wild.
Spike would have been the first titan arum to bloom in the Chicago area.
"It's disappointing that it didn't open because it's really quite splendid,” Chicago Botanic Garden conservation scientist Patrick Herendeen, who narrated the opening to the crowd, told the Tribune. “They're amazing plants. Their flowers are amazing and their odor is amazing.
“However, this is not unprecedented,” he added. “It just didn't perform as expected. But that's just like our garden plants at home."
For more than a week, Spike showed signs of impending bloom, including emitting a faint, rank odor. But when the plant failed to unfurl, botanic garden scientists decided to cut around its base and open Spike manually as a crowd of onlookers watched, the Tribune reports.
Scientists believe Spike, which is 68 inches tall, did not have enough energy to force itself open. The scientists' cuts helped peel the outer layers from the plant's main base, revealing a series of spongy and rubbery leaves, sort of like a bok choy leaf.
The plant is not sick, and the fact that it did not open on its own does not mean it will not again, scientists said.
And while there’s no clear timetable for if and when Spike might bloom again, the garden’s staff note that the whole process still served as a “teachable moment” about the corpse flower for scientists, conservationists, and the public.
“Very little research exists about the titan arum,” according to the garden’s site. “Garden conservation scientists will look to find answers about why Spike did not perform as expected.”
The Chicago Botanic Garden has seven other titan arum plants that staff will continue to observe for signs of blossom.