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Rosie, a Rare and Beautiful Flower With a Sickening Stench

Chuck enjoys both the beauty of the great outdoors and the challenge of finding and photographing its wild inhabitants both big and small.

The Rosie corpse flower blooming at Tucson Botanical Gardens

The Rosie corpse flower blooming at Tucson Botanical Gardens

The Rare Blooming of a Rosie (Corpse Flower)

Now that our children are grown and out of the house, my wife, Bella, and I have more time and money to do things we enjoy. Bella usually takes the lead and spends most of her spare moments on her smartphone searching for new things to see and do.

About a week ago she discovered a post on the web announcing that a rare plant, known as an Amorphophallus titanuma.k.a. corpse flower—was about to bloom at the Tucson Botanical Gardens. Because this plant only blooms every seven to ten years or more, it is a major event. Tourists from distant places joined Tucsonans in coming to see the plant bloom.

A Global Audience Followed the Livestream

The Tucson Botanical Gardens began streaming pictures and commentary about the plant’s progress toward blooming a week or more before it finally bloomed. No one knew when the flower would actually bloom and this caused followers to check the live stream regularly to see its progress.

It was almost like anticipating the birth of a baby as the pregnancy comes to term. Just as a baby decides when to exit the womb, so too the plant was the one to decide when the moment was right to bloom.

My wife checked the livestream on her smartphone regularly starting on Thursday and had us prepared to head over to see it as soon as it opened.

My Wife, Bella, Next to the Amorphophallus Titanum or Corpse Plant

My Wife, Bella, Next to the Amorphophallus Titanum or Corpse Plant

Amorphophallus Titanum Started Blooming on Monday Morning

The blooming started on Monday, which is my wife’s day off. She called me at work around noon to tell me to leave work right at 5:00 and come straight home. When I arrived home a little before 5:30, she was waiting outside. She jumped in the car and we were off to the other side of town.

As we drove to the Botanical Gardens, Bella began pointing out that the entrance fee for non-members was $15 and the flower would be the only exhibit open when we arrived. This coupled with the fact all the available parking would already have been taken it made sense for me to just drop her off, go get something to eat and come back and pick her up.

While I was interested in the flower, I was not all that excited to pay an additional $15 and stand around for an hour or more just for a quick look at a flower that smelled like a corpse. So I agreed to drop her off and go get something to eat while she went to see it. In addition to her very practical idea, my wife had another motive as well. If she went in alone, she could give me her older iPhone 6 to use while she borrowed my new Google Pixel phone, which takes better pictures.

My Wife Blowing a Kiss Toward Rosie the Corpse Plant at Tucson Botanical Gardens

My Wife Blowing a Kiss Toward Rosie the Corpse Plant at Tucson Botanical Gardens

I agreed and while she ended up spending the next hour and a half standing in line inside the Butterfly Pavilion, which was not only hot and humid but reeked from the stench being given off by the flower of the Amorphophallus titanum, I went to a nearby restaurant where I had dinner and then enjoyed an early evening walk.

Viewing the Plant's Inflorescence

The Amorphophallus titanum plant is native to the jungles of Asia and is now found mainly in the rainforest jungles on the large Indonesian island of Sumatra, where it was first discovered in 1878 by the Italian botanist Odoardo Beccari.

Despite the fact that my wife and thousands of others visited the Tucson Botanical Gardens to view the flowering of Rosie, no one other than a couple of staff actually saw the plant’s flowers.

Amorphophallus Titanum Plant in Bloom

Amorphophallus Titanum Plant in Bloom

The large phallus like growth rising out of the center of the plant is not the flower. Rather, it is the plant’s inflorescence, a stem like structure that is covered with tiny flowers. The tiny flowers surround the base of the inflorescence and, in the pictures, are blocked by the large petal like spathe the surrounds the lower portion of the inflorescence.

In the pictures, the spathe is the purple (inside) and whitish green (outside) leaf or petal like structure surrounding the lower half of the inflorescence. The tiny flowers can be seen by getting close and looking down inside the spathe.

Pollinating Rosie

However, the staff of the Botanical Gardens is planning to pollinate the plant and try to produce seeds, as they don’t want the flowers to be damaged before they are ready to be pollinated.

According to my wife, a yellow circle with a five foot radius had been drawn around Rosie and visitors were not allowed to step over the yellow line of the circle. Visitors were also forbidden to hold their cameras and cell phones above their heads and try to lean over and take a picture for fear they would drop it into the plant.

In nature, flies, dung beetles and other insects that feed on rotting flesh perform the task of pollinating the plant. They are attracted by both the smell of rotting flesh and the plant’s ability to heat up to a temperature close to that of a human or animal body.

However, in addition to not wanting their Butterfly Pavilion full of flies, there is also no other corpse plant for insects to pollinate.

Rosie Can't Self-Pollinate

While each corpse plant produces both male and female flowers, self-pollination in the wild is prevented by the fact that the female flowers grow in a ring around the bottom of the inflorescence with the male flowers growing in a ring just above the female ones.

The female flowers develop first and the male shortly after. Thus, when an insect digs around looking for decaying flesh the female pollen clings to it and travels with the insect as it moves to another flower, where it brushes against the male flowers and pollinates them.

In the case of Rosie, when the Chicago Botanical Gardens learned that the flower was preparing to bloom they arranged to send some pollen from two of their corpse plants, named Sumatra and Sunshine, both of which have bloomed in recent years, to Tucson to be used to try to pollinate Rosie.

Sumatra’s and Sunshine’s pollen has been stored and shipped at a sub-zero temperature since being extracted a few years ago. The Tucson Botanical Gardens has had to wait to use the pollen until Rosie’s temperature rises to the point where successful pollination can take place.

If the pollination is successful and some of Rosie’s pollinated flowers mature into fruits with seeds, these seeds will be shared with other botanical gardens around the world who will try to grow them into plants that in years to come will produce a flower every decade or so.

Wild Habitat of Amorphophallus Titanum Is Shrinking

Producing more corpse plants in captivity is important because human development on the Indonesian island of Sumatra and a few other tropical islands in Asia is cutting away at their rain forests, which are the natural habitat of the Amorphophallus titanum.

© 2018 Chuck Nugent