Rare ′corpse flower′ finally blooms in Germany | Environment| All topics from climate change to conservation | DW | 17.07.2012
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Rare 'corpse flower' finally blooms in Germany

Thousands flocked to Bonn's botanical garden this week as one of its prized titan arums entered a brief period of blossoming. The bloom's odor is reminiscent of rotting flesh, earning it the nickname "corpse flower."

It is a monstrosity, a prehistoric relic whose stench is as appalling as its proportions are overwhelming. It is a work of art, a stunning bouquet with a fantastic unicorn's horn in the middle. It is a primitive totem, a pillar to an unknown god that draws homage from thousands of visitors whenever it blooms.

The titan arum, a tropical plant that has the world's largest blossom, can be many things. But with an erratic life cycle, that sees the plant alternate between short periods of blooming and long stretches of dormancy, it certainly isn't accommodating.

"It's something I'm only going to see maybe once every five years," visitor Johannes Bergmann said. "As someone who always hunts for curiosities, it's totally worth it."

Guide Frank Klipstein explains the titan arum to a tour group

The plant stays in this state for several days before it blooms

Bergmann said he drove about 90 minutes from Zülpich, Germany on Sunday to watch the first day of Bonn's record-setting specimen in bloom. The biology student arrived hours before the plant unfurled its spathe, a petal-like structure that comprises the titan arum's blossom.

Bergmann was among dozens of visitors in a long cue to enter the titan arum's humid greenhouse home.

"It's something you can't see everywhere in the world," he said. "It's really extraordinary."

Mounting expectations

The specimen in question, one of about 40 at the University of Bonn's botanical garden, set the world record for titan arum height in 2003, coming in at about 2.7 meters (or almost nine feet). That record has since been broken, but the plant's past glory seemed to fill the atmosphere as the crowd grew.

an internal view of Bonn's titan arum

The plant heats up to spread its pungent fumes

At one point, a young boy not much taller than the titan arum's pot became impatient and poked at the plant's still-closed spathe with his umbrella. It looked as though he were prodding the titan arum for an explanation, but he soon gave up.

Finally, the plant's dull yellow spathe dropped in increments from its initial position - tightly wrapped around a tall, brown structure called a spadix. By evening, it had spread its celebrated mauve blossom.

Around the same time, a putrid smell started to fill the greenhouse.

"Just this moment, it's starting to smell very strongly of carcass," noted Michael Neumann, the main caretaker of Bonn's titan arum plants. "I think it's a mixture of smells. It's very hard to describe, but not very pleasant."

Sophisticated organism

The titan arum gives off the odor of rotting flesh to draw insects like flies and beetles for pollination. Neumann described the titan arum as a sophisticated system in which the blooming spathe gives off its unique odor, the spadix warms itself to around 37 degrees Celsius, and that heat pushes the scent up and along the blossom.

Neumann added that in the titan arum's native rain forests of West Sumatra, Indonesia, where there is little wind, the smell can easily penetrate the treetops and summon insects from afar.

"It's actually working like a chimney, pushing the smell up into the top of the rain forest canopy," he said.

Corpse blossom haven

The University of Bonn's botanical garden is one of the world's most successful centers at growing the plant. Neumann said the facility acquired its first specimens from West Sumatra in the 1930s and had success cultivating it until the garden was destroyed in World War II.

A boy takes a photo of Bonn's titan arum in bloom

Bonn's botanical garden stayed open late, but was closed by the time the plant emitted its strongest stench overnight

He added that Bonn botanists forgot about this legacy until a colleague named Manfred Könen happened upon some old archives. Könen decided to visit West Sumatra and brought back two new specimens in 1986.

One of the specimens died, but the other was the very same titan arum that bloomed on Sunday. This was the plant's 13th blossoming ever. It measured 2.81 meters tall, beating its old top height, but coming shy of the current world record of 3.1 meters. That benchmark was set in the United States. Nevertheless, visitors in Bonn seemed impressed with the spectacle.

A side view of Bonn's titan arum Photographer: Shant Shahrigian Date: 15/7/12 Location: Bonn, Deutschland

Bonn's botanical garden is a leader in titan arum cultivation

"I loved the plant," said Bonn resident Mino Ko. "I think it is especially interesting because it is rare, and the dynamic energy that comes from this plant is very special."

Bergmann, the biology student, added that the titan arum is the Bonn botanical garden's official symbol.

"If I would compare it to football, it's like having your national team play in a game where everybody sees them - on a botanical level," he said.

The titan arum's bloom typically starts to wither after just two days. Then, it gradually enters a period of dormancy at least nine months long. Neumann said he couldn't predict exactly when the specimen would bloom again.

Author: Shant Shahrigian
Editor: Saroja Coelho

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