Flowers do not typically merit news stories. And the rare times they do, their scientific names are usually only mentioned in passing, if that.
But this is no usual flower and no usual name.
|The titan arum has grown five inches since Thursday.|
Those with a bit of classical education can help deconstruct the name. "Amorpho-"—from the Greek, the word "amorphous" might give you a clue — meaning "shapeless, or deformed." Then "-phallus" we all know, and stop that snickering in back. And finally, "titanum" meaning "giant."
A native of the rainforest of Sumatra, in the Indonesian archipelago, the corpse flower — it's also called "titan arum" the more demure name that naturalist Sir David Attenborough coined for use on British television — is often referred to as a rock star of a flower, one that causes a commotion whenever it blooms.
And like many rock stars, the titan arum has a complicated sex life.
The flower was discovered by an Italian naturalist in 1878, and 11 years later, the first specimen to bloom in the Western world spewed its stink at London's Kew Gardens. The police had to hold back the crowds who showed up to catch a whiff, and thousands are expected to visit the Botanic Garden when their specimen blooms, sometime in the next week to 10 days.
The titan arum did not first unleash its distinctive stink in the United States until 1937 at the New York Botanical Garden. Its opening was an event of such importance that it was designated the "Official Flower of the Bronx" (though it was replaced in 2000 with the day lily by city officials suddenly concerned that it sent the message, "The Bronx stinks").
"SIX-FOOT BLOSSOM ABOUT TO APPEAR" headlined a 1937 story in the New York Times, which perfectly described the plant as resembling "a huge ear of corn, with some of the characteristics of the cucumber."
The Botanic Garden is calling theirs "Spike." There is a tradition of giving specimens visitor-friendly names. Como Park Conservatory in St. Paul named theirs "Bob" when it bloomed in 2008. About four arums bloom each year in conservatories around the United States.
But don't let the benign names fool you. This is still all about hot sex, albeit hot plant sex. Plants flower in order to reproduce; a flower's scent attract pollinators, and the titan arum smells bad to humans, a "decaying, rancid, rotten stench," but is perfume to flesh flies and corpse beetles, which in Sumatra would crawl into the flower to lay their eggs, bringing with it pollen from other titan arums (since it can't self-pollinate and none of the others are open, the Botanic Garden is looking to get their titan arum in a family way by importing pollen from another conservatory with a blooming titan arum, perhaps Denver).
When the big moment arrives, the green outer leaves, called the spathe, will curl down, revealing a maroon yellow interior and the squashlike, to be polite, spadix, jutting straight up. The plant also gets all hot and bothered—its temperature raising 10 to 15 degrees, the better to blast out odor. Though be forewarned; visitors in other cities have reported being underwhelmed, expecting to get an intense draught of rotting flesh and finding something less than that.
The Botanic Garden spent 12 years carefully growing Spike and his eight brothers and sisters (literally both brothers and sisters, as the plant is monoecious, meaning it has both male and female elements), acquiring part of the brood from Plant Delights Nursery in Raleigh, North Carolina (if you simply must have one, Plant Delights sells them online for $75 for a 12-to-18 inch plant). Crowds are expected, as are Spike t-shirts.
You can check the Chicago Botanic Garden's website for updates. But once it's time, don't dawdle. The flower is only expected to be in bloom for one day, maybe two, and then the whole thing collapses. Though the garden usually closes at 9 p.m., the night the flower blooms it will remain open until 2 a.m., and waive its usual $25 per car parking fee after 9 p.m. A rare, short-lived, exotic, odorous, plant sex show in Glencoe: how often do you have the chance to see—and smell—that?