In pursuit of novelty

Green scene


I certainly did not expect to write about doings at the New York Botanical Gardens (NYBG) two weeks in a row, lavish as the gardens are. But there has been a breathless watch going on in the Conservatory, waiting for the blooming of the Amorphophallus titanum flower – once the official flower of the Bronx, until it was replaced by the daylily in 2000 – with a video camera relaying the situation to an excited public, moment-by-moment.

One of several outstanding characteristics of this flower – known tastefully as the corpse flower – is the extraordinary stench exuded by the opened flower. The nickname is not much of a stretch because the scent is reminiscent of rotting meat. Having experienced the vile odors of gingko fruit, skunk and the occasional dead bird, I actually have no intention of racing to smell something so clearly advertised as deadly. Instead, I went to see the flower structure as it appears before opening and that was quite remarkable in itself.

The flowering specimen and two juveniles of different ages are sitting on a platform in the pool right inside the Conservatory entrance. All eyes are on the greenish bud, which is several feet tall and wrapped in layers of thin petal material pleated at the upper edge. The Amorphophallus belongs to the Araceae family, whose members’ reproductive structures consist of a spike, called a spadix, wrapped in a covering, called the spathe, which creates a waterproof bag. The flowers and pollen structures are contained in two separate rings around the base of the spadix. If the flowers are fertilized, multiple red fruits will form, and from them seed will form. Since the plant is not self-fertile, another male specimen needs to be found to provide the female structures with pollen. The plant ensures that it does not self-fertilize by having the female flowers open a day before its own pollen is released. While we may be bemused by the concept that a terrible stench is emitted by something as exquisite as a flower, the natural pollinators of the Amorphophallus are beetles and flies, which, presumably, find such odors attractive.

The huge public interest is probably due to the rarity of the event and the sheer size – the entire structure can reach 12 feet or more – and uniqueness of the flower. The stench just comes along for the ride, although one eager visitor said that she was “interested in the full experience.”

While this is not the first Amorphophallus flowering event at NYBG, it has not happened in many years. A plant acquired in 1932 bloomed in 1936, and a second one acquired in 1935 bloomed in 1939. The present specimen was acquired in 2007 and has been growing in the Nolen Greenhouse in a room designed for tropical plants. While in its growth stage, it is watered and fertilized heavily. During initial growing years the plant could easily be mistaken for a small tree with a green, slender trunk, topped by three separate fronds of leaves. Surprisingly, that entire tree-like structure is actually one leaf – with the fronds being leaflets – that supply the corm, which develops as a storage organ – with food. The size of that leaf increases with the age of the plant. At the end of each growing cycle, the leaf crumples and dies away and the plant goes into a dormancy period when it is not watered at all, although it will be repotted.  After several months of dormancy, new growth pushes up from the roots, and only then does watering and fertilizing recommence. It is also the point when it is clear whether the plant is putting out a new leaf or a flower. Altogether, getting a flower is generally a 10-year-plus project, and not for anyone who needs instant gratification. 

We are generally familiar with plants that grow from seed, put out a recognizable plant form, fruit on some regular schedule and either die or do it over again. The Amorphophallus is very different. The plant will produce the leafy form for years and then, one year, instead of the leaf, a conical bud-shape is visible and the magic ensues. After a successful bloom, the plant will revert to growing as its leafy form for years, until the internal signal sets off the next blooming cycle

Babies are born when they are good and ready. It seems the Amorphophallus felt no greater urgency to blossom. This baby was already about a week overdue when the blooming process seemed to have started.

Maybe next time I will go see it in its full glory. 

Green scene, Sura Jeselsohn