Denver Botanic Gardens Merges Death and Life

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Denver Botanic Gardens

Denver Botanic Gardens inherited a plant that scientifically is titled as a “giant deformed penis.” The Greek name for it, Amorphophallus titanum, was given during the time when plants were labeled for the body parts they resembled because each was thought to heal whatever anatomical portion it looked like. This was especially a popular idea for sex organ look-alikes. To see such a prominent phallic resemblance towering above people is quite an oddity, but what makes it more intriguing is the reproductive cycle and its bizarre characteristics in each stage. Denver Botanic Gardens’ Stinky is going to display them all in the few days following Aug. 17, 2015.

To start with appearances, this Indonesian plant species usually takes several years to reach sexual maturity, and in its prepubescent and adolescent stages it grows a few inches a day. It can reach a full height of up to 21 feet and a weight of 160 pounds in its natural habitat, but when it is cultivated it will typically only be five or six feet tall. The length of it is green speckled with cream and is ruffled in texture. The base bulges out to be about three feet wider than the rest of the plant, and it has the largest underground bulb in the world to provide nutrients to the whole structure and concoct a distinct odor when the plant is ready to start its magic.

When it blooms, the main leaf opens to reveal a deep purple or crimson color that changes during the plant’s receptive stages, as Denver Botanic Gardens’ Stinky is starting to display. The whole leaf branches out of the bulb and opens to release its tasteful, fermented, death-like aroma, which is highly sulphuric in content. Because it takes so much energy to produce the scent to attract pollen carriers, it can only stay in bloom for a couple of days.

Despite appearances, the flowers that bloom underneath the main structure are both male and female; there is a ring of small, white male flowers at the base, and underneath them is a ring of larger, pink, female flowers. The spadix, or the tall, protruding center, can also change its sex. When there are other species around, insects will pollinate and become trapped, or perhaps entranced, at the core of the momentarily female plant. With fertilization, the same structure will start producing pollen, and the beetles and flies will fly free to spread it to other plants. The leaf, or spathe, will then fall off to expose maturing ovules in pods that look like Arum maculatum. The fruits will become bright orange-red when ripe, and hornbills and other birds feast on them, but maybe not at Denver Botanic Gardens when Stinky makes them.

After the display, a single leaf will creep up where the huge, color-rich spathe was in preparation for the next round in about six years. The Amorphophallus titanum will stay in a dormant state for months and will grow at a much slower rate of 10cm per day. Unfortunately, the plant is very rare, so the merger of death and life are hardly seen when the stage arises. It also takes a very long time for each Amorphophallus titanum to reach its sexual peak, and when they do, they are very sensitive to the environment. If the temperature falls below 50 degrees Fahrenheit during those couple of days it will die. Denver Botanic Gardens is one of the few places in the United States striving to repopulate this endangered species.

Denver’s Botanic Gardens were lucky enough to include one of these odd lifeforms in part of their display, and they have been eagerly awaiting the day it opened – late Tuesday – when 700 to 800 flowers were uncovered. Hopefully, the plant will be able to repopulate since the species is endangered in the native lands of Sydney, Borneo, and Indonesia. With its newly entered receptive stage, though, Denver Botanic Gardens will be overtaken with the stench of death while new life springs in opportunities. Other similar varieties of Amorphophallus titanum have different smells, like chopped carrots or bananas, while others are putrid and smell like rancid cheese, rotting meat, or even dung.

By Jarick Roaderick


Chicago Sun-Times: So You Think Your Sex Life Stinks?
Daily Nexus: Exotic Flower Rises To Sizeable Sexual Peak
KEW: Amorphophallus titanum (titan arum)
Fox 31: Corpse flower begins to bloom at Denver Botanic Gardens
Photo Courtesy of Jason Morrison’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License