Wednesday, August 12, 2015

So you think YOUR sex life stinks?

     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.
     A stalk of Amorphophallus titanum went on display in a greenhouse at the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe Thursday. And while they are referring to it as a "Corpse Flower," for the awful stench it gives off when it blooms — and one has never bloomed in the Chicago area before — there is a reason to grasp that lengthy moniker, because it speaks to what this whole process is really about.
     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."
    Put it together and we get the "Giant deformed penis" plant, one of the more apt names in botany.
     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?


  1. Plant porno? It's come to this...?

  2. Another column on Donald Trump?


  3. And you didn't even mention that the Denver BG is instamgraming "texts" between their Stinky and Spike.

    1. Did the NSA intercept them perchance?

      No privacy even between privates!


  4. Always something to learn in the world of horticulture.

  5. "Come down to Kew in lilac time, in lilac time
    And you shall wander hand in hand with love in summer's wonderland."

    And also witness the giant deformed penis in detumescence.

    Funny how we always thought those proper Victorians were sexually repressed.

    Tom Evans

  6. Hmmm... Amid all that takes place in the big city, er... metro area, if you and Mary Schmich have written columns on the same curious local topic, on the same day, it MUST be a noteworthy event. Can't say that we'll be queuing up for this, though, even though it's so much closer than Kew.

  7. I wonder if it's a toxic smell that can cause headaches or such.

  8. The Denver Botanic Garden's corpse flower is scheduled to bloom around Sunday 8/16.


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