A Titan Arum By Any Name Would Still Stink
Opinions varied. Some people said they smelled a rat -- a dead one. Others likened the odor to bad meat. One woman opted for strong cheese. As far as my olfactory senses were concerned, someone forgot to take out the garbage.
I'm talking of course about the world's stinkiest plant -- Amorphophallus titanum, or the titan arum, a cousin of calla lilies, philodendrons and skunk cabbage. It's also known as the corpse plant, but the horticulture staff of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden has a much nicer name for it -- it may be a real stinker, but they call it "Baby."
I just came back from visiting Baby at the garden, where it is drawing crowds of gawkers and sniffers as well as photographers, TV camera crews and day campers equipped with crayons and sketch pads. We were there because the tropical oddity is in bloom, the first flowering of a titan arum in New York since 1939. All I can say is that my experience was a real gas.
Baby is quite imposing -- with a lime green lower spathe that opened to show a ribbed and ruffled purplish-red collar. Out of that rose a towering pale yellow spadix, or spike. From soil level to tip, the whole thing measures 66-and-a-half inches tall. All I can say is that the last part of the genus name Amorphophallus sums it up.
The basketball-sized corm from which it sprang weighed 45 pounds. Baby was planted 10 years ago at the garden and took that long to grow to its present eminence and bloom. Now, protected by roping and security guards, it holds court in a beautiful Seibert & Rice terra cotta pot.
When I was up close with my nose just inches away, I felt slightly nauseous. But for the most part, the smell wasn't overpowering. Like one bystander said, "We're New Yorkers, we're used to bad smells."
Baby was at its odoriferous worst in the wee hours when nobody was there except for plant propagator Alessandro Chiari, who showed up at 4:30 in the morning. He had to actually stick his face inside the spathe to photograph and measure the vertical band of yellow dots that are the female flowers to make sure they were ready to be pollinated. "The odor came in waves," he said. He put on a respirator mask. "It smelled rotten, totally rotten. The yellow part was oozing, like it was sweating. It really stunk."
I watched Alessandro and Patrick Cullina, vice president of horticulture and Mark Fisher, curator of the Tropical Pavilion pollinate Baby. First came the pollination of the female flowers -- in the wild, carrion beetles and sweat bees do the deed. Actually, that's why the titan arum stinks -- the scent an unmistakable signal to its insect pollinators. In Baby's case, the pollen came from a titan arum that bloomed recently at Virginia Tech and was Fed-exed to Brooklyn. Sort of a botanical in vitro procedure. Today's operation took mere minutes and involved a couple of camel-hair brushes doused with the Virginia pollen that were attached to a long white stick. The crowd applauded as Alessandro made the match.
Tomorrow, he turns his attention to the male flowers. "It's like the male and female live in the same house," he said, "but, well, one's ready now and the other isn't, if you know what I mean. They're not exactly on the same page." He'll cut a section of spathe and collect the sticky pollen from the male flowers with a spatula. This pollen will be stored and made available to botanical gardens hoping to propagate other titans.
If today's human intervention succeeds, a column of red seeds will appear. In any case, Baby will collapse. The giant spadix will wither and the plant will die down into a vegetative crown.
And no one knows when -- or if -- the titan arum will rise again to smell in Brooklyn. As for me, I left the garden secure in the knowledge that I had sniffed the world's stinkiest plant.