An Unforgettable Bloom

How an other-worldly plant inspired my journey from literature major to aspiring scientist

I smelled the flower before I saw it. The stench was reminiscent of an old garbage bin, rotten and sour, and the air that carried it was warm against my skin. The smell was revolting to me, but to the pollinators of this particular flower a rose by any other name would not smell nearly as sweet.

The chemical components that make up this plant’s putrid perfume — trimethylamine, isovaleric acid, dimethyl trisulfide, indole, and a few others that are just as unpronounceable — are responsible for the characteristic smells of rotting fish, sweaty socks, old cheese, and feces. An unappetizing combination to a human like me, but as irresistible as roadkill to any insects looking for a meal. The distinctive smell is what gives the infamous corpse flower its name.

But this clever plant does more than simply stink. To lure in visitors, the corpse flower generates an enormous amount of heat during its bloom, raising the internal temperature of its cream-colored, pillar-like spadix to a whopping 36–38 degrees Celsius. Bursts of warm air spread the smell, attracting flies, dung beetles, and other hungry insects toward the plant. Upon arriving, the unusual pollinators are welcomed into wrinkled red leaf folds designed to resemble a carcass — a common tactic for carrion flowers. The corpse flower does all this to fool insects into scrambling over its smelly warm flesh, only to tumble into the center of its frilly, bucket-shaped spathe. Hidden here is the real flower, waiting to be fertilized. Disappointed insects must climb back up the spadix, their bodies depositing and collecting pollen as they clamber toward their escape.

This is the ingenious way the corpse flower evolved to reproduce, as I observed firsthand one warm September morning at the San Diego Botanic Garden in my hometown of Encinitas, California. The rare bloom lasts only a day or two, so lucky hosts make the most of its short lifespan with ample publicity. When I heard about the bloom, I decided to drive over to the gardens that morning before my biology class at the community college. I love carrion flowers — the metallic green flies they attract, the strange smell, and their fleshy, hairy appearance — and I knew seeing a corpse flower in bloom may be a once in a lifetime experience. The plant is endangered and only bloom unpredictably every seven to ten years. After arriving at the garden, an employee instructed me to simply “follow the smell” down a winding dirt trail until I encountered the bloom.

The corpse flower is not much of a flower. Technically it is a plant known as the titan arum, endemic to the warm and wet equatorial rainforest of western Sumatra. Its scientific name is Amorphophallus titanum, which essentially translates to “giant, misshapen penis”. Not a particularly pretty name, but then again, it is not a particularly beautiful plant. When it is not stinking and looking strikingly phallic, it produces large and leafy stalks resembling scrawny trees. The entire premise of the titan arum — sexually suggestive, fearfully pungent, physically astounding — seems like something from a page of Luigi Serafini’s fictional encyclopedia Codex Seraphinianus or growing in Hieronymous Bosch’s unsettling triptych, The Garden of Earthly Delights.

Perhaps it was the fantastical nature of the titan arum that first drew me to it the year before, when I was a freshman in college. As I followed the dusty trail through the San Diego Botanic Garden that morning, sparrows chirping in the trees whose shade I passed through, I remembered the first time I had seen a titan arum. It was not in bloom, tucked away in a tropical greenhouse of the University of California Botanical Garden at Berkeley. Back then I was a city college student, working and studying in the East Bay Area after following my high school sweetheart there from Southern California. I was a literature major enrolled in a physical science class, but that term I became more interested in reading my science textbook than my literary assignments. The professor, noticing my enthusiasm during lectures, invited me to accompany her lab on a field trip to the botanical garden.

It was there, while shyly exploring the garden and greenhouses with a group of students I had just met, that I saw a titan arum. Even when it is not in bloom, the plant is unmistakable. I remember standing in the heat and humidity, surrounded by deep green tropical plants whose names I did not know, feeling as though I had been transported to another world. The magnificent size and appearance of the titan arum distracted me from observing any other plant. I had breathed in every moment, feeling the earth shift beneath my feet, wondering what it would be like to behold its rare bloom. When the other students filtered out of the greenhouse, I remained standing there alone, wrestling with questions I had never considered before. How did the diverse and incredible plants and animals of this planet come to exist? Why does the titan arum have its unique characteristics? What other kinds of extraordinary natural things existed?

As a child my world had been confined to my homeschooling experience. Science and nature were not heavily emphasized in our religious curriculum, and even when I later attended charter school, science seemed like a world I was not welcome within. But on that field trip I realized that science was not itself a world, but a tool we could use to understand our world. If that were the case, then anyone could learn how to use a tool — even me. When I left the botanical garden at Berkeley, I purchased an egg carton with seeds from the gift shop. Back at my apartment, I planted seeds within each little cup of the carton, carefully inserting popsicle stick labels into the soil and setting my miniature garden outside to grow. While I waited for my seeds to sprout, I read Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s Eye View of The World. Within its pages, I rediscovered a world that had once been forbidden from my education: evolution. I realized that if I really wanted to know the answers to the questions the titan arum had inspired, understanding evolution would be the key.

Evolution was on my mind that morning at the San Diego Botanic Garden. We were studying it in my biology class. As I walked through the garden, I reflected on the fact that the last time I had set foot on this trail, I was a child who believed evolution was a lie meant to distract us from the Bible’s truth. Bible stories seemed safer to me back then, so much easier to trust than complicated things like carbon dating and geologic time and fossil records. Scientific language, full of complicated jargon and lengthy Latin names, often discourages people from understanding or relating to science. It can also be a reason that people sometimes do not trust scientists. In my biology class, our professor had us watch a documentary on religious opposition to the theory of evolution. I think he wanted the nonreligious students to understand why it was controversial. But I had firsthand experience with those beliefs. Although many religions accept evolution, fundamentalists — such as those who take the Biblical story of creation literally — do not. Unlike my classmates, I once genuinely believed the Earth was only so many thousands of years old, a timescale on which evolution could never have occurred.

The moment I caught sight of the titan arum in bloom, it struck me how terribly insufficient that answer was. I lost my breath. My heart quickened its beat. An excited smile inexplicably spread across my face, and I hurried to join the crowd of people admiring the corpse flower. We stood there together, as close as we could press, studying its strange form. Every now and then another wave of pungent warm air would envelope us, and everyone made sounds and expressions of delighted repulsion.

Looking up at the bloom, I thought about how incredibly silly its scientific name is. Science is just a way for us to describe our world, to make sense of it, to name it and understand it. For a long time, science had intimidated me. But there in the garden, surrounded by chirping birds and tall bamboo and the dark green fronds of plants whose names I did not know, I knew I was an aspiring ecologist. I wanted to understand the role species play in their environment, their relationships with each other and their co-evolution. I wanted to change my major from literature to science.

Reflecting on this, I listened to the garden’s director of botany discuss the titan arum. The plant we were admiring, on loan to them from a university, had not bloomed in over a decade. Speaking to a news crew, the president of the San Diego Botanic Garden joked that “Yes, it stinks. But it is also other-worldly beautiful.” I had to agree. It was like something out of a surrealist painting, or a work of science fiction.

For me, a love of language and literature seems to go hand in hand with my curiosity for science. Just as I once poured over literary terms and rhetoric, I find myself putting that same passion toward understanding scientific terms and concepts. The same enjoyment I took in writing essays analyzing Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets, I feel now when I write an article describing a new development in science. What once seemed so different, so unrelated, is now all part of the same ecosystem to me. The very same skills that I thought made me ill-suited for science have turned out to be my greatest assets.

Learning about the titan arum was my gateway into science. But more importantly, it is what made me realize that anyone who is willing to pause and wonder about nature has a bit of scientific curiosity in them. When we begin to nurture that curiosity and indulge our childlike tendency toward asking questions, we can let go of the belief that science is boring or only for the exceptional. It is this truth that convinces me science is for everyone, if only we are willing to observe and attune ourselves to the extraordinary aspects of nature. The unforgettable bloom of the corpse flower happened to be my source of scientific inspiration, but inspiration can take any form — so long as we are willing to look.

Posing with a blooming corpse flower at the San Diego Botanic Garden, September 2017.

Nonfiction writer wrangling words and horses in the Pacific Northwest | she/they

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