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Stinky Plant May Have Trouble Attracting Humans, Not Bugs - 2002-08-03

The plant "titan arum" has the biggest flower in the world, and also the worst smelling. One specimen in Pasadena, California, is ready to bloom. That is a rare event because it may happen only a few times in a plant's 40-year lifetime. Visitors to the Huntington Library and Gardens are bracing for an aromatic experience.

Nursery manager Theresa Trunnelle said the plant looks like something from a science-fiction movie. "Bizarre," she laughed. "It's very bizarre. It looks as though it's something from another planet," he said.

It is a large and leafy vertical pod, green and burgundy, one meter high. It will soon send up a flower two or three meters high and one meter wide.

Ms. Trunnelle said the plant has a number of names, both scientific and affectionate. "Amorphophallus titanum is the technical name for it. And we have a fond name here of 'stinky' or 'the stinker,' and we're referring to its seedling as 'little stinker.' It's more commonly referred to, though, as the 'corpse flower' because of the way it smells when it's at peak fertilization," she said.

The Huntington's specimen is from the rainforest of Sumatra, Indonesia, where most of the plants are located.

Ms. Trunnelle said the smell may be repellent to people, but serves another purpose in the natural world. "It's an attractant. It's a horrible smell. It smells like decaying matter, meat. It's been compared to a combination of decaying fish or meat, nutmeg and maybe some cabbage. It smells to attract, in nature, pollinators," she said.

The smell draws flesh-eating beetles and flies that carry pollen from one plant to another so seeds will develop.

Huntington curator Gary Lyons said the plants, while not officially endangered, face challenges as civilization encroaches on their natural environment. "And they are harvested for commercial purposes, used as an aphrodisiac, also as a vegetable," Mr. Lyons said. In addition, the corpse flower is used in herbal medicines.

Much is still unknown about the plant and so scientists at nearby Jet Propulsion Laboratory are helping botanists by monitoring the plant to see how temperature, humidity and moisture in the soil affect its blooming cycle.

JPL's Kevin Delin said electronic sensors transmit information on this and other plants to scientists by way of the Internet. "We've been working with the Huntington now for about two years. There are a number of different microclimates at the Huntington, as you can see from the different gardens that are here, the Japanese Garden and the Desert Garden, and so it was an opportunity to test our instrument locally through JPL and actually do some useful work at the same time," Mr. Delin said.

But visitors are less concerned with this technical information than with the plant's impressive appearance and overwhelming odor, said Huntington curator Gary Lyons.

"They're amazed and if they're here soon enough to get a good whiff of the fragrance when it first opens, it can smell for maybe up to half a mile around. Fortunately, we don't have it in a small greenhouse when it flowers. If it were to flower in a very small, low-ceilinged greenhouse, you'd probably pass out from the scent," Mr. Lyons said.

The plant releases its odor suddenly and explosively. It blooms for about a day and then the event is over for another three or four years, or possibly longer. The most common reaction, said Mr. Lyons, is excitement combined with nausea.