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Titum Arum - The Corpse Flower of Sumatra

In much the same manner as people touch a wall with the sign 'Wet Paint', it seems you can't keep anyone away from a giant flower that is known to start a stink. We don't want to hear second-hand, we want to go have a whiff for ourselves.
There's a well-known story of a swain who, in his quest to impress his lady with his imagination and originality, sent around a bouquet of Titum Arum - his lady had a sensitive nose and so he lost her forever and ever, amen.

Okay, alright, that's not a well-known story - I just made it up. But that's what would happen if it had indeed happened. Fortunately such social gaffes are practically impossible - you can't order Titum Arums at your local florist shop.

Amorphophallus titanum, as it is known in Latin, is an ancient, rather rare lily from the tropical Sumatran rain-forest. The Sumatrans have a more apt name for it - they call it the Corpse Flower.

Anyone who has had the misfortune to inhale its scent is not likely to ever forget it. The smell has been variously described by first hand sufferers as - sickening, revolting, putrid, nauseating, like a combination of dead fish, rats and other sundry rotting carcasses.

The loathsome scent, which can be detected from half a mile away, is emanated for the purpose of pollination - an extraordinary idea, one would think, but apparently the insects - certain carrion beetles and flesh flies mainly - that help with the pollination have different views on the matter. Smell then, like beauty, lies in the sense organs of the beholder.

It was once thought that the pollination of the Titum Arum was brought about by elephants. This absurd rumor came into being due to its sheer size. This is no delicate, shrinking violet, but in fact the biggest flower in the world.

The plant is known to have grown up to a height of 3 meters in botanical gardens - perhaps it grows to an even greater height in the wet tropical jungle. It has an amazing rate of growth - 8 to 10 inches per day. It grows from a large underground tuber that can weigh more than 77 kg.

The plant, apart from its gargantuan size, has an extraordinarily remarkable appearance - a single cream-colored leaf, with a crimson core, enfolding a yellow spike. It is this yellow spike that emanates the nauseating smell during pollination to attract hoards of pollinating insects. The birds arrive in masses after the flower transforms into a fruit.

The flower also attracts human visitors in droves. In much the same manner as people touch a wall with the sign 'Wet Paint', it seems you can't keep anyone away from a giant flower that is known to start a stink. We don't want to hear second-hand, we want to go have a whiff for ourselves.

Another reason for all the excitement is that it is not a prolific flowerer. It can take years and years before one smelly flower makes its appearance. And the flower stays open for about 48 hours. Nature, like always, knows what it is doing. Given human nature, human tolerance, and human population explosion, a prolifically flowering, long-lasting Titum Arum would be an extinct within no time.

The first European botanist to stumble upon the plant was the Italian, Odoardo Beccari (I find the first name rather curious and in tune with his pet find). He came across the plant while traveling through the Sumatra jungles in 1878. He gathered the seeds and sent them back to his patron in Italy. There the seeds were nurtured and some of them germinated and developed into young plants. One of these young plants was sent to the Botanical Gardens in Kew in England and it was here that the first Titum Arum in England flowered in 1889. The second flowering, I think, was in 1926, quite a gap. On both occasions, enormous crowds turned up to view the spectacle and the police had to be called to control the rowdier elements.

These days the Titum Arum can also be seen at the Princess of Wales Botanical Garden in England, the Botanical Garden in Sydney, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Botany Greenhouse, at the New York Botanical Gardens, at the Huntington Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California, at the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens in Sarasota, Florida.
By Sonal Panse
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