July 1, 2008

Corpse Flower Blooms After 13 Years

THERE'S nothing like the smell of rotting flesh in the morning, especially if you are a botanist.

Monday morning, volunteers and botanists at UC Berkeley Botanical Gardens arrived to see the fruits of their labor reach fruition as "Odora," the corpse flower, emitted a smell that only a carrion beetle would find appealing.

"It pushes the odor a mile," volunteer Judith Finn said.

After 13 years, Odora finally grew into the "flowering structure" every botanist could wish for. Most Amorphophallus titanums, or corpse flowers, take only seven years to bloom, but Odora took her time.

Joe Fargione, ecologist with The Nature Conservancy, and wife Erica Fargione, an herbalist and faculty at Minneapolis Community and Technology College, came into town for a workshop at UC Berkeley. They decided to visit the botanical garden, where unbeknownst to them Odora's stench was in full force.

"It's like if you took a turkey out of the freezer, put it in the garbage, and realized you should have waited to take it out of the freezer until you could give it directly to the garbage man," Erica Fargione said.

Joe Fargione joked that people would like it if they liked "big stinky flowers."

This is not the first corpse flower Finn has seen in bloom. Associate manager for the UC Berkeley Botanical Garden for 20 years and senior horticulturist for 10 years, she just couldn't leave these giant

stink bombs.

A year ago she saw another corpse flower bloom at UC Berkeley. The botanists and horticulturists used pollen from a flower at UC Davis, which had been saved in a freezer for a year, to pollinate last year's flower. This was done because the flower is not supposed to cross-pollinate.

Although it appears to be one flower, the corpse flower is in fact many small male and female flowers. When it opens, the female flowers are open for pollination, then the male flowers bloom to spread the pollen. The opening of the female flower is what creates the stench lasting eight hours, often the same amount of time the female flowers are able to be pollinated.

"Last year when it was pollinated, it collapsed right away," Finn said.

The staff and volunteers wanted the corpse flower from last year to stay open for visitors to come and see, but since there was such a limited amount of time to pollinate the flower, these flower "fertility doctors" had to cut the odorous strip tease short to ensure proper seeds for the following year.

Odora, on the other hand, will not be pollinated. Staff and volunteers want the public to have an opportunity to admire the growth of this 44-inch-high fulsome flora.

"It may still be open on Thursday," Finn said, "but chances are it won't look too pretty."

Chris Carmichael, the associate director of collections and horticulture at UC Berkeley Botanical Gardens, said the flowering structure should last for approximately 72 hours.

"If it lasted two or three days we would be lucky," Carmichael said.