In August we journeyed to The City of Angels to share a birthday with our youngest grandchild. Checking in on arrival, we learned that she had insisted that her mom take her to the Huntington Botanical Gardens where the fabled Corpse Flower was blooming. She did not want to miss the fleeting delight of its fragrance, which is said to be like rotting meat.
The following day, we went along to share this unique opportunity. She led us directly to the conservatory where it was displayed on a dais complete with webcam. Actually, three were on display, labeled “stink,”, “stank” and “stunk.” Plenty of patrons were gathered round trying to catch a whiff when an unlabeled employee leapt over the barrier. He explained that he was checking to see if the plant had produced any pollen yet as he wanted to collect some. Apparently, it is only briefly available.
Amorphophallus titanum is a member of the Araceae family, native to the tropics of Asia and Africa. This particular one hails from Sumatra where it is perennial, growing from huge rhizomes 20 inches in diameter and weighing around 15 pounds. The flower is about five feet tall. The foliage follows the flowers with leaves and their stalks reaching 14 feet.
The plant evolved its nasty aroma to attract as pollinators nocturnal insects that feed on dead animals or lay their eggs in rotting meat, such as carrion beetles and flesh flies. Chemicals included in the stench are dimethyl trisulfide, which smells like limburger cheese, dimethyl disulfide and trimethylamine (rotting fish), isovaleric acid (sweaty socks) and indole (like feces), all on top of benzyl alcohol, which has a sweet floral scent.
Other members of this plant family are familiar to us, for it includes calla lilies, caladiums and elephant ears as well as our native Jack in the Pulpit. In fact, it is the distinctive flowers that define the group. The flower is called a “spaethe” and the central spike a “spadix”.
I have found two of these exotic flowers that are hardy to zone 7. One is the Voodoo Lily, Sauromatum venosum. This shade lover produces a green and purple spaethe with a black-purple spadix in early summer followed by striking foliage two to three feet tall. For those with Corpse Flower envy, Dracunculus vulgaris, Dragon Arum, promises an unpleasant-smelling flower. The maroon spaethe is 18 inches long and and six inches wide, showcasing a dark red spadix. The foliage has purple spots and grows up to three feet tall. Talk about some garden drama!
I offered to get a Dragon Arum for my grandchild,
but her mother nixed that notion. I may have to add it to my border. Make that the far end of the border.
Master gardener Ann Bartlett never lets lack of familiarity with a plant, nor its stench of festering putrescence, stop her from trying it in the ornamental beds around her home. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.