October 26th, 2010


Stink squared

I met a local celebrity this summer while I was visiting Houston, Texas. Lois was young and small, only seven years old, weighed 30 pounds, and was creamy white with a large crimson frill. She had grown to a respectable 69 inches tall, and she stank like very ripe garbage. She was a corpse flower, a titan arum, an Amorphophallus titanum to be specific, and she was in bloom at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

Only 29 botanical collections in the US have had a publicized corpse flower bloom since 1937, along with another 21 in gardens elsewhere in the world. The plant is native to western Sumatra, where deforestation has made it rare. Mature plants can grow 10-foot-tall flowers, and they produce their own heat to project the stench.

Lois's flower opened early on Friday, July 23. Just getting to see her wasn't easy because she had become a star attraction. I went with my brother and his family on Saturday, July 24, and by then 5,000 people had already visited her. The museum had begun selling timed "Stink Squared" tickets, and the first available time was 1:30 a.m. — her exhibit would be open all night to accommodate her fans. We opted for 10:30 a.m. Sunday morning. Meanwhile, we could view the flower and her stream of visitors on an internet webcam. A happy bridal party posed with Lois as a special guest bouquet on Saturday night.

The stench peaks at pollination time. Carrion flies pollinate the flower, and since the plants grow far apart, they must attract flies from as far away as possible, which explains both the quantity and quality of the stench. By the time we arrived, the Stink-O-Meter had sunk to 3 out of 10, still unpleasant. On Sunday night, the flower collapsed.

I had learned something curious studying the exhibit. It said the titan arum flowers every 3 to 5 years, and in the meantime, it grows one leaf. Just one? For such a big flower? I decided to investigate more when I got home.

But I didn't have to. During my American vacation, I also visited Milwaukee's Mitchell Park Horticultural Conservatory, and there, in the tropical dome, a little titan arum was growing without fanfare in a pot. A thick green stalk was topped by a leaf split into leaflets, in all the size of a beach umbrella. And that was a baby.

The stalk of mature plants can reach 20 feet tall and the leaf 16 feet across, sending energy in the form of sugars to a corm (root) that can grow to between 100 and 200 pounds. When it's ready, the corm will use that energy to create the biggest, stinkiest flower on Earth.

If there are no titanic blooms in your area, you can learn all about Lois and the titan arum here:

Houston Museum of Natural Science Lois blog:
The museum's corpse flower photos:
Wikipedia, with a good set of external links:

— Sue Burke

Also posted at my writer's website: http://www.sue.burke.name