Big Beauty


A rare and fascinating event is taking place this week at the U.S. Botanic Garden in Washington, DC.  A titan arum (Amorphophallus titanum) is blooming.  Its Latin name is enough to get anyone's attention, and since this colossal plant blossoms so rarely (it needs just the right heat and humidity), it becomes a media event. In its native rain forest habitat of Sumatra, the plant is called the corpse flower (bunga bangkai) because it smells like rotten meat. This is how it attracts pollinators, which include carrion beetles and flies. It's no surprise that crowds are drawn to a gigantic, stinky plant. But it's also a beautiful structure, worthy of a place in any museum of contemporary art. Several years ago, while working on the book, A Botanic Garden for the Nation, I had the good fortune to get “up close and personal” with a titan arum as it flowered. Though I barely remember the smell, I do have vivid memories of its slow unfolding as I watched and photographed over a period of two weeks (the photo above shows it beginning to open). The fabulous spathe, the large petal that wraps around the flower, is pleated like the neck ruffle of an Elizabethan lady, and as it opens, it reveals a rich maroon red hidden under the spotted green exterior. The tiny flowers are clustered inside at the base of the spadix, the giant central column, which is hollow. The flowering lasts for only a day or two, and then the spathe closes as the plant slowly collapses. The titan arum is an amazing example of nature's art surpassing our imagination.