The message lit up the Fellows’ email: a corpse flower was expected to bloom at the Botanical Garden. This news indicated an unprecedented opportunity to nerd out, and we were up to the challenge!
I first became aware of the Titan arum, or more specifically, the Amorphophallus titanum, when one bloomed a few years back at the University of Connecticut. Judging by the amount of press the plant received, it was obviously a horticultural rock star, but since I wasn’t willing to make the 45 minute drive to see it, I remained unmoved. The United States Botanical Garden, however, is at the foot of Capital Hill, which put me in much closer proximity to the event. The unbounded enthusiasm for all things nerdy shared by my fellow Fellows added to my incentive to go visit.
The first reason that the blooming of a Titan arum is a major event is that it is not an annual occurrence. The timing is rather unpredictable and can range from a few years to a few decades. Cultivating these natives of Sumatra is also not trivial since they require high humidity, stable temperatures, and quite a bit of space. Thus they are usually only found in large botanical gardening facilities. The U.S. Botanical Garden has fourteen accessions of the titan arum, which I assume means they’ve got 14 plants.
When the plant gets ready to bloom, it starts shooting up from its underground stem called a corm, and it can grow six inches a day. In technical terms, the Titan arum has the “largest known unbranched inflorescence in the plant kingdom,” which when translated means, “That’s one big honking flower!” The whole structure is probably over six feet tall, so it’s a very striking plant.
I’m sure you’ve read this far to find out about the corpse reference of the flower. After it blooms, it does indeed smell of rotting flesh, although the smell is the strongest at night and is almost nonexistent during the day. I read that the night that our titan arum bloomed, one of the horticulture staff members working during that time said that the smell was so pungent and affected him so much that he wasn’t able to eat dinner until hours after he got home.
Obviously this novel biological event pinged the nerd radars of all the Fellows, even though our group is sorely lacking in biologists. Our first notice arrived when the Architect of the Capitol, who oversees the Botanical Garden, sent out an email to the folks on that listserve that the titan arum was ready to bloom. Timing is critical because the flower only lasts about 48 hours and then the whole structure collapses. There followed considerable email chatter among the fellows about sending forth an expedition to gather data for the group. A party composed of a veterinarian, a toxicologist, and a fluvial geomorphologist made the pilgrimage over at lunch and brought back the word that although the stalk was shooting up, it was not yet blooming. Several days passed, and we continued to send Fellows over to scout the progress. Alas the reports all came back the same; it was not yet time. As the Washington Post and NPR picked up the story, the crowds started increasing as well. There was a webcam set up that we could watch, but it was not the same as viewing the plant in person.
Finally our agronomist Fellow sent back word that although the plant was not yet blooming, it was displaying a significant baby bump. Indeed as the world eagerly anticipated the arrival of the new British prince in London, the residents of DC and especially the Fellows equally eagerly anticipated the blooming of our own bright blossom. The two events coincided almost exactly.
I learned the hard way that visiting the new arrival after work was not a good strategy. By the time I arrived about 6:30 on the peak bloom day, the line wrapped around the block, and I was not willing to stand in line for more than an hour. Happily, the next day I joined an excursion party of the four Fellows in my building, (a chemist, a toxicologist, a nutritionist, and yet another veterinarian) and we expertly navigated under the Capitol and through the House office buildings to minimize our time in the humidity outside.
Pictures don’t do justice to the size of the plant; I hadn’t realized just how impressive a six or seven foot plant could be. The bloom had closed by the time we arrived, but it had not yet begun to collapse. I was also just as happy that there was no corpsified smell when we visited. I was fine with looking at the gigantic flower, but I didn’t feel the need to embrace the experience with all of my senses. Overall, the flower was really interesting, but I was also enchanted to watch how any scientific event could capture the imagination of my fellow Fellows. Turning loose the collective curiosity, creativity, and strategic energies of the group was highly entertaining and almost more impressive than the actual titan arum.