Botanists Hold Breath for Flower That Overpowers


While most flowers attract bees with brilliant colors, one botanical maverick lures dung beetles with an odor comparable to that of a dead horse.

It is considered the largest flower in the world, a four-foot maroon blossom called--appropriately enough--”corpse flower” in its native Sumatra. The titan arum is so rare that there have been only 10 blooms recorded in the United States.

And its putrid scent apparently attracts people, which has curators at the Huntington Library in San Marino delighted. They have one that is expected to unfurl its petals this week and draw throngs of visitors.


“This is the first time we’ve ever had any of these bloom,” said library spokeswoman Lisa Blackburn. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

Library botanists are hoping it does not also draw flies. But that could be the price for cultivating the big daddy of botany, the freak show of the plant world.

“We as botanists have to get people excited about plants,” said Kathy Musial, the Huntington’s curator of plant collections. “This is the plant that will do that.”

It should. When a titan bloomed in a University of Washington greenhouse earlier this month, it drew 2,000 curiosity-seekers. Last June, a similar blossoming prompted more than 5,000 nose-holding gawkers to visit the Fairchild Tropical Gardens in Miami. At the first blooming in the United States, in the New York Botanical Garden in 1937, there was such a stampede that police had to be called in.

Huntington officials say that they will be prepared for the throngs who arrive to look over the flower that once graced the cover of a book titled “The Strangest Plants in the World.”

Curators have placed cordons around the star performer, which sits under Greek columns in an open-air atrium on the library grounds.

As of Monday, the plant was 5-foot-3, growing several inches a day and still odorless. Its daily measurements are posted on the library’s Web site (, and it should top 6 feet before the flower opens, about Wednesday.

The Huntington received the titan arum six months ago from an Arizona botanist who was worried that its periodic sproutings of 20-foot leaves would shoot through the top of his greenhouse.

When the plant arrived in San Marino, curators did not expect it to bloom for years. Then about five weeks ago, the telltale maroon spear budded, sending curators into a frenzy to prepare for the glorious, if rancid, event.

Stench aside, legend has it that the flower is an aphrodisiac, evidenced by its scientific name: Amorphophallus titanium, which translated from Greek means giant, shapeless phallus.

Unfortunately, its Viagra-like reputation has led to its diminished numbers in other parts of the world. In the rain forests of central Sumatra, where it grows naturally, people have taken to digging up the giant root bulbs and exporting them to some Asian countries, where they are ground into a powder to restore fallen libidos.

Meanwhile, the hornbill--a bird that eats and redistributes the plant’s seeds as droppings--is endangered, compounding the titan’s survival problems.

In response, the Huntington plans to donate money to the Indonesian Plant Conservation Network to study the plants and promote conservation, Musial said. She hopes that scientists can convince Sumatrans that it is more profitable to charge tourists to see the rare plants than it is to export them.

The titan is, after all, a fascinating and complex species, she said. Later this week, the maroon spear will start emitting odor in pulsating puffs, like a smokestack. It is a method well-suited to attracting pollinators, especially in the moist, fecund environment below the forest canopy, she said.

While the seductive scent of rotting flesh wafts through the air, a shroud of what looks like iceberg lettuce will unfurl, revealing the giant flower.

Technically, botanists say, the flower consists of thousands of minute blooms. But experts generally regard the trumpet-shaped structure, much like a calla lily, as a single flower. As such, British naturalist David Attenborough once wrote, “the titan arum must surely be the largest flower in the world.”

Musial said the titan is only the beginning of a string of botanical freaks the Huntington will acquire with the hope of drawing more people.

The library is stocking up on carnivorous plants, such as Venus flytraps. And officials there are excited about trying to grow the seeds of another Sumatra plant, the colorful parasitic rafflesia.

If they are successful, it will be quite a feat, said Musial. “This is truly the Holy Grail of horticulture,” she said of the rafflesia.