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Giant Stinky Flower Attracts Thousands in Bonn

Just a day old and already Bonn’s "giant baby" has wracked up a record for the largest flower in cultivation and attracted hordes of horticulturists, not to mention thousands of internet users viewing it on web cam.


At 2.74 meters, Bonn's titan arum is a wonder to behold, if you don't breathe too deeply.

Botanists in Bonn’s University Botanical Garden had been waiting all week with bated breath for the world’s largest flowering plant, the titan arum, to blossom and exude its tell-tale putrid stench. After breaking the 70-year old world record on Wednesday for the world’s tallest blossom – it measured in at a whopping 2.74 meters (8.98 feet) – the director of the garden predicted the flowering tuber would bloom on Friday at the earliest. But the stinky plant, as it’s sometimes called, broke all expectations and began unfurling its single large petal at 1:30 GMT on Thursday.

Internet users were the first to catch a glimpse of the blooming sensation. A web cam trained 24 hours on the plant recorded the first tentative changes in the blossom, and vigilant surfers visiting the garden’s home site notified the curator of the tropical collection, Wolfram Lobin. "The plant wrecked all my carefully constructed work schedules for the next days," he jested to reporters after announcing the event.

In fact, the titan’s flowering was so sudden that when contacted by DW-WORLD on Thursday afternoon, the curator was so overwhelmed by the opening blossom that he could only express how stressful the whole situation was. "I don’t have time for an interview, the flower is opening now," he stuttered.

Flower power

By Friday, news about the blooming flower had spread beyond the mundane university town on the Rhine and the first waves of horticulturists were knocking at the botanical garden’s gate. The web cam, which updates every five minutes, has been extremely popular, attracting some 80,000 viewers since the flower opened.

The last time Bonn’s amorphophallus titanum bloomed in July 2000, over 15,000 people dropped in to witness the short-lived spectacle. The giant flower, actually a single leaf-like petal in the shape of a fountain, only blooms for a few days before its central staff collapses. This year workers at the garden expect at least 10,000 people to turn out for the event. A special telephone hotline was even set up to answer callers’ questions, and the normally limited opening hours have been extended until late in the evening to accommodate all the visitors.

"It’ll be like going to an amusement park," one worker told DW-WORLD, "everyone will have to line up and wait their turn until they get to the attraction." And the line moves slowly, winding its way through the tropical green house, past other rare specimens in the garden’s collection. There’s plenty for the visitors to look at while they wait, but it’s the "giant baby" everyone wants to see.

Rare beauty

And it’s no wonder, given the uniqueness of the plant and the rarity of such flowerings. The titan arum, which exists in nature only on the island of Sumatra, was discovered in 1878. A large underground tuber – the Bonn specimen weighed in at 78 kilograms – sends forth a single giant leaf, which stays on the plant for nearly a year before dropping off to provide nutrients for a new leaf.

At irregular intervals of several years, a three-meter high fountain-shaped flower emerges in place of the leaf. The single dark purple brown petal uncurls itself from the staff and blooms for about two days before the entire blossom tips over. It is during this time that the plant releases its most characteristic trait – a foul-smelling stench similar to rotting flesh. The odor is so strong that it attracts swarms of carrion beetles who pollinate the plant when they land on the petal. Pollination can only take place during the short-lived flowering.

Given the difficulty of cultivation, the titan is extremely rare in botanical gardens. Since being introduced to tropical green house collections at the turn of the century, only 70 plants have bloomed, each time attracting thousands of curious visitors.

The botanical garden at the University of Bonn has been one of the more successful institutions in the cultivation of the giant plant. Since 1937 there have been seven flowerings.

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