The corpse flower seems like something that you’d see in the game Plants vs Zombies, but it’s a real plant that, after blooming, is supposed to give off the scent similar to that of a rotting animal. One type of corpse flower, the titan arum (amorphophallus titan, and I totally just noticed the word “phallus” in its scientific name), actually bloomed in the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens this past weekend. Since I had never been to the Huntington and since these plants are native to Sumatra and their blooms are pretty rare, I knew that I had to make a trip to San Marino just to see it for myself.
In 1999, the first titan arum bloomed at the Huntington and became the first of its kind to bloom in California. That flower was successfully hand-pollinated by botanists using the plant’s own pollen (which apparently would have normally been considered impossible) and produced ten fertile seeds. This most recent flower being showcased is a descendant of that original 1999 plant and had taken fifteen years to finally bloom, the fifth bloom at the Huntington. Calling it a flower is not exactly correct though as the titan arum is an inflorescence, or a cluster of flowers. At the base of the spadix (the tall, phallic thing in the middle or the funnel-shaped spathe) are a bunch of male and female flowers and that is where the actual pollination occurs.
I decided that I wanted to see the flower both before it had bloomed and after. My first trip to the Huntington was last Friday and I didn’t expect the Huntington grounds to be so large. After paying for admission and getting my sticker, I headed straight to the conservatory to catch my first glimpse of the corpse flower, which was sitting right by the entrance. The corpse flower had been growing a few inches each day and was at a height of 5’3″ when I came.
The corpse flower sat in a large pot along with three other pots showing other stages of the titan arum lifecycle. The seed develops into a corm, which is essentially a giant bulb or tuber from which a bud will sprout. Here, the plant can take on two different paths. The more common path is to grow up into a leaf, which almost looks like a tree. A long stem sticks straight up out of the ground with several leaves stretching out at the top. Once the leaf dies, the cycle happens again and a bud will continue to either become a new leaf or take the second, less common path and become a flower. The flower path is known as the reproductive stage since that is where new seeds can be produced while the leaf path is the vegetative state. A docent at the Huntington told me that people are still not quite sure what factors make the plant choose one path over another. Aliens?
There was a small crowd filled with people of all ages and backgrounds that came to see the corpse flower. I even got interviewed by someone from KCRW to give my reactions and talk a little bit about why I was there. I may or may not have rambled a bit. I remember that I was asked whether I thought the flower was beautiful and I think I said something about how it has an unconventional kind of beauty. I also might have thrown in the phrase “once-in-a-lifetime experience” in there, but I really hope I didn’t. Oh, how cringeworthy it would be to hear that trite statement, especially when it isn’t necessarily once-in-a-lifetime at all. Oh, that interview was such a blur.
On Saturday, the flower began to bloom in the mid-afternoon. When I returned to the Huntington on Sunday, it had already started to close up a little, but you could still see the dark red colors of the spathe. There was a stench, but it wasn’t horrible. I think I read that the actual rotting smell is there in the first twelve hours after blooming and it starts to get less horrid after that. When my family and I were there, my brother said it reminded him of a Filipino market. My brother and I went back a couple hours later and it began to smell more like bell peppers. I’m not sure if I’m relieved or disappointed that I didn’t get the corpse smell though. Maybe I’ll get a chance with the next bloom.
If I lived closer, I would totally have bought a membership to the Huntington. All I talked about in this post was the corpse flower, but there is a massive amount to see between the art collections, the library, and the botanical gardens and I’ll talk a little more about that in a future post. The corpse flower ultimately grew to a height of 5’6″, but it’s ending its bloom cycle and will start to plop over like any other wilted plant soon. So long, Stinky!