May 16th, 2016
It's a beautiful flower that emits quite an awful smell: the so-called "corpse flower," or Amorphophallus titanium, is attracting hundreds of people to see and smell it. It was just on bloom at Foster Botanical Garden (FBG) in Nu`uanu.
The plant, originally from Sumatra, Indonesia, is such a draw because it only opens up every two to five years. It's a slow grower, too. It takes 10 years to blossom from seed. When it opens, it's just for one or two days.
This novelty is what draws people to line up at the Garden and experience the odor.
FBG horticulturist Scot Mitamura muses, "Everyone's curious about the smell, but it is the plant kingdom's largest flower and largest leaf, and it only blooms overnight, so it's on a lot of people's bucket list to see."
The smell, described like a rotting fish or dead rat, attracts insects that feed on dead animals. Its aroma gets stronger the later it gets in the night, when carrion beetles and flesh flies are active. The smell then fades as it creeps towards morning.
KHON2's Jai Cunningham was live there on Wake Up 2day on Thursday (May 12), the day it bloomed. As he said on air, from the flower's perspective, "Ha ha. Tricked you into pollinating!" We giggled at his cute description.
The flower is huge. It has a large spathe (the baguette-looking protrusion coming from the middle). The petals are deep red, which adds to the trickery by appearing like dead meat to a beetle.
I had to go check it out. I've been delivering news reports on this unusual flower for 15 years and have never experienced in it person. I tried the last time in 2013, but I was a day late. I was determined not to let that happen this time.
There were a crowd of curious folks standing around a a little line to see it. There were people with fancy cameras and a whole lot of phone cameras pointed at this rock star of a flower.
It's impressively large, and quite pretty. The deep red petals look even more vibrant in person, and the size itself is best appreciated when actually in its presence.
It is shaped like a calla lily, but so much larger. The staff removed a couple of the front petals so people could see the pollination area at the base.
The scent? It didn't knock my socks off. I had heard so much about the "rotting flesh" odor, but I was standing two feet from it and didn't smell anything. I had to move over a couple feet to catch the downwind.
It was somewhat faint, and to me it was like musty cabbage... past-its-prime kim chee. I'm sure, though, time-of-day had a lot to do with it because I was there at 1 p.m. and, as mentioned earlier, it's at its peak overnight. I'm not going to drag myself to stand at the outskirts of the closed garden at midnight, so I'll take Mitamura's word for it.
It takes so much energy to blossom, it even generates heat, which also adds to the illusion of flesh and possibly helps intensify the fragrance. Mitamura explains, "For it to flower, it takes so much energy for the bulb. The top of the spathe heats up to around 96 degrees F - around human skin temperature. There's actually a photo online where it's steaming at the top, but that was in New Hampshire when it was cold."
After the flower dies, one single leaf comes up in its place. It looks like a small tree, but that's actually one big leaf with leaflets at the top.
FBG has three plants on display in different stages of growth. Mitamura stands by the one in the "leaf" phase of its life.
To make his point that it might look like a tree but it's actually not, he knocks on that part that looks like the trunk."It's hollow like a watermelon. Inside, the fiber is like a loofah. This leaf can get up to 20 feet tall and 15 feet around. It's up for six months, absorbing the sun's energy, then it collapses in two to three weeks."
He says a collapsed leaf looks like it just melted. Then what? "All the energy goes into the bulb. It will repeat that cycle several times before it flowers again."
When its ready, it sends a bulb up. He points to the third pot, and this one has a little nub sticking out of the middle. "As the bulb initiates, it stays in that initiation phase for a while, but once it expands it goes really fast."
Apparently, most conservatories have just one corpse flower plant, but FBG is lucky to have ten, which means you're lucky to have more chances to see this rare blossom.
"They bloom between the months that start with A; April and August," he says, hinting that maybe those interested should watch out for a FBG alert about another blossom this summer.
Reach FBG at http://www.honolulu.gov/cms-dpr-menu/site-dpr-sitearticles/568-foster-botanical-garden.html.