Death Smell

29 Oct

Apparently these flowers are very rare. I’m tempted to go to the museum to see it.

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Public Museum hosts the Big Stink

Milwaukeeans already know the Big Gig. Now get ready for the Big Stink.

The city is about to get a snoot-full of its very own, very rare, very huge and very smelly “corpse flower,” which is about to bloom at the Milwaukee Public Museum.

This Titan arum blossoms only once every six years, and it has its tubers set on nothing less than becoming the biggest flower in the world. And if it does, Wisconsinites will be holding their noses all the way to Sheboygan.

The museum’s corpse flower, which has never bloomed before, has its roots in Sumatra, and only about 140 of the plants are known to exist in the world, according to Neil Luebke, curator of botany at the museum and the stinky plant’s guardian.

The museum’s plant is the offspring of bloomin’ celebrities. One of them is none other than “Big Bucky,” the 8-foot-tall floral super-stud that drew more than 20,000 sinus-challenged visitors when it flowered in Madison in 2005.

The Titan arum’s olive-size seeds were planted in 2002, products of a long-distance love-match between Big Bucky and “Mr. Magnificent,” an equally odiferous bloom from Florida. Luebke found the seedling a home in the museum’s Butterfly Gardens, where the humidity and 80 degree temperatures suited the fussy flower just right.

Luebke gave the plant a special mixture of vitamins and water, patted it each day and, yes, talked to it: “But I’m not telling what I said to it, other than I encouraged it to grow.”

One big bloom

And grow it did, at a rate of about an inch an hour in the last few days; it now stands at about 6 feet tall. Museum officials hope this beauty will grow to a height of around 10 feet, which would make it the biggest flower in the world.

No one knows exactly when this plant will bloom – Halloween seems appropriate – but when it does, will make an alewife hang its head in shame.

“Everything this plant does is dynamite,” says Luebke. So put down your sandwich for the rest of this story.

Titan arums are so rare that in their native rain forests they must send out a signal to fellow plants in order to fertilize each other. They do this by raising a stench that travels for miles.

The foul nature of the odor has been described as everything from rotting poop to “rotting flesh, roadkill,” Luebke says. If you like the smell of a dead mouse forgotten in a trap for a week, you’ll love the corpse plant.

Actually, this bud goes by a lot of names, everything from Titan arum (a name given by David Attenborough for the BBC book and program “The Private Life of Plants”) to Amorphophallus titanum (which translates into something we don’t want to spotlight in a family newspaper) to “Bunga Bangkai” – Sumatran for “corpse flower.”

So freaky are these plants, so much like props from an “alien pod” movie, that they also inspire affectionate human nicknames. The Milwaukee Public Museum staff held a contest to come up with a name for its plant. The winning moniker will be announced soon.

No one knows for sure exactly when the plant will bloom, But its stardom will be short-lived. It will stink only for about six hours, and then it will say “hosta la vista,” collapsing after a mere two days.

The museum is installing a Webcam so that flower fans can watch the plant’s progress. When it does bloom, the museum will announced special extended hours to accommodate the star-struck hordes it expects to visit.

One hint, however: Bring a clothespin.

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