Some fortunate visitors to the Chicago Botanic Garden recently witnessed the rare opening of not one, but two, titan arums. Better known as corpse flowers due to their pungent odor that resembles decaying flesh, the massive plants bloom once every ten years, and that too, for only a few hours. However, that may be a good thing given that when the petals unfurl, the stench emanated is so foul that it has earned the titan arum the title of the “world's smelliest flower.”
As with everything in nature, there is a good reason for the smell - it is meant to lure insects to help with pollination. Experts believe that the competition for natural pollinators like bees is so high in the tropical climate where the plants grow, it was forced to evolve to recruit a different kind of pollinator - insects like flies, beetles, and wasps, which feed on dead animals. The foul odor helps attract the unsuspecting pollinators inside the massive flower which is filled with sticky pollen. Once that occurs, the flower withers, enabling the insects to escape with the powder stuck to their bodies.
Chicago Botanic Garden’s recently bloomed “Titan Twins,” named Java and Sumatra were grown from seed from the same plant. They have been at the conservatory since 2008 and are the fourth and fifth corpse flowers to open from a collection of 17 such plants. For reasons unknown to the experts, the twins are bigger and stronger than the garden’s other titan arums.
Java, which measures an impressive 52-inches tall and 34-inches wide, began to bloom on the evening of May 30, giving visitors, some of whom had been waiting since 6:30 AM, a whiff of what smelled like an open-air fish market. The 45-inches tall and 40-inches wide Sumatra followed shortly after on June 1.
The experts at the Center used this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of the blooming of two plants from the same seed to determine the age-old question of how long female flowers continue to generate odor and heat once pollination is complete. They hypothesized that as soon as the plant detects an insect, it stops wasting precious energy and withers. To test the thesis, the officials hand pollinated Sumatra with pollen obtained from an unrelated titan arum to maintain genetic diversity. Java, on the other hand, was allowed to close with no pollination. The results of the experiment have not been revealed yet.
Though both flowers closed within the expected 24-hour period, the majestic titan arums remained on display for visitors to admire until June 8. They were then moved back to the greenhouse to continue their growing cycle so that they can hopefully delight the world with another spectacular, albeit stinky, bloom in ten years.
In the wild, titan arums can be only be found in the equatorial forests of Sumatra, Indonesia. The plants, which resemble a small tree, grow extremely rapidly, adding about a quarter of an inch every hour. Fully-grown titan arums can reach heights in excess of 20-feet, widths close to 16-feet and weigh as much as 70 pounds. Though many conservatories around the world cultivate the exotic giant plants, fewer than 300 are known to have bloomed since record-keeping began in 1889. It is no wonder that the opening of these foul-smelling flowers generates such excitement.
Resources: gmannetwork.com, chicagobotanic.org.