In June 2016 the people of Chicago waited -cameras focused- for Persephone, a corpse flower, to bloom in her home at the Garfield Park Conservatory. That same year, two more corpse flowers bloomed in Chicago: Alice and Sprout, both at the Chicago Botanical Garden.
Above: Alice the Corpse Flower blooms in time-lapse at the Chicago Botanic Garden.
Like countless others, the flower fascinated me. First of all, there is this: “Amorphophallus titanum – which translates as ‘giant misshapen penis’ – holds the record for the world’s largest unbranched inflorescence (flowering structure). Hardly any of these plants exist in cultivation, and their blooms are rare and unpredictable, occurring fleetingly once every five to 10 years,” according to BBC Earth. The stunning bloom display only lasts a few hours, with male blooms in full vibrancy for about 24 hours.
If the plant’s Latin name is attributed to the physical appearance of the flower, its colloquial name is all about the way it smells. Like a corpse. “Chemical analyses of the scent have identified compounds including isovaleric acid (cheese, sweat), dimethyl disulphide (garlic), dimethyl trisulphide (decomposing meat), indole (faeces) and trimethylamine (rotting fish). The foetid fragrance appears in the late evening, intensifies into the night and gradually tapers off as morning breaks”, BBC Earth reports.
And while imaginations as run as wild as a Dr. Seuss landscape, the plant adds a particular feeling to the mix, “On top of raising a stink, the chemistry of the bloom raises its temperature to over 36C – human body temperature – perpetuating the illusion of decomposing flesh and helping to disperse the volatile compounds through the dense tropical forest. This also accounts for the plant’s gargantuan proportions. Since A. titanum is not a self-pollinator, it can only reproduce if beetles and other insects shuttle pollen between blooming individuals. The spadix and spathe act together as a kind of olfactory loudhailer, luring pollinators from far and wide,” again from BBC Earth.
These plants are making everyone antsy. They are relatively rare; prior to the year 2000, during 100 years of cultivation, only 50 of these treasures had bloomed, but recent years have been unusually prolific for the corpse flowers. The bustle of activity in Chicago was matched in other places around the globe, with 32 blooms in 2016 in the US, India, Australia, Denmark, Belgium and the UK. Science has a few guesses about why… The plants could be ‘cousins’ and thus are coming to maturity around the same time. Subtle changes in climate may have stimulated the blooms…
One suggested reason really caught my attention, a theory that the plants could have bloomed in response to each other. “When you have a flower that only lasts a couple of days, it’s such a narrow window of opportunity,” says Marc Hachadourian, greenhouse director at the New York Botanical Garden. “Some kind of trigger for the plants to bloom in the wild would ensure you have more than one individual flowering.”
The idea of plant cultivating a scent and an attractive image is not uncommon, flowers all over the Earth since the beginning of time have done this. But when we really think about this, that the evolution of a plant based on sensual outputs when the plant will never have the experience of sight, smell or touch, is mystifying. Earlier this week I was awake in the early hours of the morning, caring for my toddler nephew who fell sick when I was babysitting. A stormy spring wind carried the smell of a flowering crab apple tree into the darkened bedroom and a single thought came to me: would the tree ever know the pleasure of smelling her fragrance? As far as we know, she will not. We know that evolution in response to environmental factors (this sniff attracts bees, but whoops, this one attracted a hungry bird) is responsible for this, but considering the immediacy of the in-your-face aspects of the corpse flower reminds us how strange and wonderful nature can be.
Of course I’m not a science or botany writer. I’ve relied heavily on BBC Earth to tell this story. But I am a wine writer and I couldn’t help but connect the flowering crab apple tree and corpse flower, conceptually, to the grapevine. The vine itself produces the flowers that are shy and unapproachable. Nobody puts grapevine flowers into a vase, but “every blossom has the potential to become a berry” according to Vineyard Manager Dana Grande from Jordan Vineyard and Winery, as she explains in this video. All of the varietals have their own scent, “very light, very delicate” she explains.
How Grapevines Bloom, COURTESY: JORDAN VINEYARD & WINERY
Very light, very delicate. Where have we heard that before? Tasting notes. I got a chill when she began to share her impressions of the scent of grape vine flowers, which is not something I’ve heard discussed much despite spending time in many vineyards in the US and France.
And when we follow our nose we end up with a glass of wine at the end of it, using our powers of scent, sight and taste to describe the way a plant ultimately conveys its evolutionary attempt to attract. Humans have long understood our ability to swerve evolution into a more suitable crop; clones are second nature in winemaking by now. But even so, the plant still holds, deep inside the source of her core, a fiery drive to produce fruit that will perpetuate her species. The flavors we pick up in our tasting notes are nature’s way of showing a little leg to the birds and the bees.
And again I’m stunned by the compassion of this, an act that mirrors a gift, as we humans, blessed with five senses, experience an explosion of stimulation in a single sip of wine. All of this while grapevines throughout the world will never know the pleasure of a silky Syrah on the tongue, or the pop of tropics in a whiff of Sauvignon Blanc. It’s almost breaks my heart, really, how blessed we are to float through the world with these senses. If for a day, the tulip or lily or even Chardonnay flower could smell herself, can you imagine the sheer thrill of self-love that would pour over her? This was me, the whole time I was this lovely! And perhaps even the corpse plant, with it’s giant probing stature and regrettable odor could finally understand the reason for so many cameras, the why behind the chatter and hush of so many waiting fans. Could it be that one is signaling to the other: if we all stick together, we will get through this. We’ll never make wine, we’ll never be in a bouquet, but here is an idea to get noticed: