Monday, August 31, 2015

This flower stinks at everything

     The Spike t-shirts are printed and ready, waiting in the Chicago Botanic Garden gift shop.
     Only $19.99.
     But Spike mania hit a serious road bump this weekend.
     The star of the show froze in the wings and refused to go on.
     All August, the Botanic Garden in Glencoe had been ballyhooing its amorphophallus titanum, popularly known as a "corpse flower," an enormous, rare Indonesian plant that was expected to open spectacularly and cast off a nauseating stench that, counterintuitively, always draws crowds of the public, who like nothing better than to see something that isn't often seen, or smell something that isn't often smelled.

     The crowds showed up—57,000 to see it in person since it was unveiled Aug. 6, hundreds of thousands more following online—in anticipation, to ogle a plant that was growing inches a day. Hundreds were there Sunday, waiting in line to see the flower bloom have its outer spath cut off by conservation scientists, in a kind of botanic circumcision, attempting to harvest the pollen.
     Among them was Ava Gaddini, 9, with her parents, Leah Starkman and James Gaddini. She had been checking Spike's live feed every day after school, drawn by the rarity of the occasion.
     "It blooms every 12 years," she said.
     "Or doesn't boom," I couldn't resist adding, then pointed out that the botanic garden has eight other titan arums on-deck in its greenhouse, and one could be blooming by Halloween, though it's hard to imagine they'll be able to recreate the commotion a second time.
     Visitors who managed to pack around the flower gasped and applauded as the huge leaves were cut away, revealing deep maroon interior designed to attract pollinating insects.
     There was no smell.
     The plant had been cultivated for 12 years, and staffers wept Saturday when they realized that Spike lacked the energy to bloom. One compared it to a "stillbirth.".
     While officials at the garden said hopes dimmed only recently, as the days rolled on, I begun to have my suspicions. Could this be a dud? But I was reluctant to start tapping my watch face in public. Friday I could no longer resist, and finally tweeted:
     "Am I the first person to wonder whether the damn corpse flower is ever going to open? @chicagobotanic #openalready"
     I should make it clear that I'm a member of the Botanic Garden, and take no pleasure in Spike's epic fail.

   Well, maybe a little pleasure, the kind of small smile of satisfaction I imagine a church lady who faithfully attends mass every single morning might feel when it rains on the annual parish carnival. Because the Tilt-o-Whirl is not what this is all about. Big media splashes are addictive, and I'd hate to see the Botanic Garden stagger from one blockbuster to the next, hyping a titan arum today, showcasing the Whistling Wisteria of Borneo tomorrow.
     And not because I'm selfish, and prefer a depopulated garden to wander through in blissful solitude.. Even on the most crowded Sunday morning, even at the height of Spike Fever, as people dutifully trudged past, gazing goonily at his green erectile majesty, once you stroll beyond the immediate vicinity of the entrance, the crowd thins out--people don't like to walk--and by the time you get to the rolling patch of prairie toward the back, you're mostly alone.
     No, I believe this development, disappointing though it is to those involved, teaches an important lesson:
     While you can't fool Mother Nature, Mother Nature certainly can fool you.
     Yes, there is much clockwork dependability. The swallows return every year. The moon waxes and wanes on schedule.
     And I suppose you can splice genes, and seed clouds, and similarly skew the natural order, now and then.
     But only so much. We have to resist falling into a false sense of certainty, of which the Botanic Garden was guilty, its PR klaxon slipping into a tone of giddy inevitability.
     "The night Spike blooms will thrill us all in the semi-tropical greenhouse, with its breathtaking flower…accompanied by a titanically rotten smell," Tim Pollack, the outdoor floriculturist, wrote on Aug. 16.
      The Botanic Garden folks should take comfort. People did turn out, and I can see those Spike t-shirts getting snapped up anyway. While plants are not always predictable, people are, and they like souvenirs they think will be rare or ironic, such as memorabilia from that big fizzle of a flower, which ended up stinking up the place, though not in the sense that its handlers expected.


  1. Poor Spike, I can't help feeling bad for the poor guy. And even worse for the Botanic staff, who worked so hard cultivating the plant for 12 years. But it's one of those life lessons, I guess. What is that saying... "the best laid plans...". Or perhaps more apt, thinking of the imagined church lady mentioned above contemplating the rainy carnival, "We make plans while God laughs".

  2. It seems the plant's dietary needs where not met. Perhaps the horticulturalists at the Chicago Botanic Garden misconstrued Spike's intention, when he was whispering "feed me" late at night.

  3. Another phallic epic in the garden! And. unfortunately, a bit of a downer (pun intended.) Might we characterize Neil's sour mood at the news of Spike's manual deflowering -- or de-petaling -- an instance of post petalectormy tristesse?

    Tom Evans

  4. One would think those guys handling the plant would need googles, gloves & an oxygen mask.

  5. I guess I can understand the hype about all this for those who are really into the whole horticultural thing in a big way, and I don't begrudge the BG for trying to benefit from publicizing it to the extent that they did. Because it would have been such a very short blooming window, they needed to let people know about it well ahead of time, so they could be ready to show up at the proper time, if they wanted to. But to me, as a casual BG fan and member, uniqueness does not always indicate desirability. I would not have looked forward to experiencing the disgusting stench of this plant any more than I looked forward to heading to the locker room after gym in high school.

    As half-dozen to dozen-times-a-year visitors to the BG, we see something unique to US every time we go, regardless. Though I'm no fan of crowds, here's hoping that this non-event at least exposed a bunch of otherwise uninitiated folks to the beauty and fascinating stuff that are on view at the BG any day of the year.

  6. For those who can rarely visit the Chicago Garden due to distance there is a small but mighty one in New Lenox/ Joliet Park district if one is in the far SW suburban area.


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