Like expectant parents, botanists at the University of Wisconsin, along with several thousand onlookers each day, paced through a greenhouse in Madison this week awaiting a botanical big event: the unfurling of the flowering structure on a rare and unusual plant, a titan arum. On Thursday afternoon, after a week of anticipation--complete with a hotline and webcam broadcast--the fast-growing giant hit a record for a titan arum cultivated from seed, topping out at 2.60 meters. Then--abruptly--the leafy fringe at the base of the stalklike structure opened and for several hours released the foul signature scent that gives the plant (Amorphophallus titanum) its common Indonesian name, bunga bangkai, or corpse flower.
In the plant's native Sumatran forest, the stalk's deep burgundy color and scent (variously described as an outhouse in 40ºC weather or soy sauce gone bad) mimic carrion, which attracts beetles and flies that pollinate the flowers. In Madison, herbarium director and acting pollinator Paul Berry stood on a ladder and used a cotton swab to apply pollen express mailed from the Selby Botanical Gardens in Sarasota, Florida, where another titan arum recently bloomed. "It was like doing a uterine test of a cow, sticking your arm in up to your shoulder," he says--and coming upon a bucket of flies swarming around the matured female flowers. The plant closed up this morning but is expected to reopen for another round in the next 24 hours, as the male flowers mature and make their pollen available.
"It's really exciting," says botanist Bruce Holst of the Selby Gardens. "It's a monster." No cigars, but the Madison botanists are hawking postcards, posters, and T-shirts. The blooming events and surrounding festivities have become more common in the United States (Science, 10 July 1998, p. 169) after seeds from a 1993 expedition led by prominent television naturalist David Attenborough were distributed to growers around the country. Still, fewer than 20 U.S. blooms have been recorded since the first one in 1937. At the same time, says Berry, the plants in the wild, which are rare to begin with, are becoming endangered as people dig the hefty tubers for collectors or for food.