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Arum Scarem

Master gardener Paul James reveals an extraordinary flower with an unexpected trait.

Every now and then an event takes place in the plant world that generates a good deal of interest. One such event is the blooming of the Titan arum. One of the largest flowers in the world, the Titan arum (Amorphophallus titanium, kin to calla lilies, Jack-in-the-pulpits, dieffenbachia and philodendrons) has an even more curious claim to fame. Native to the rainforest in central Sumatra in Indonesia, this flower is known to natives as the "corpse flower" because the Titan arum is extremely odiferous.

"I should know because I had an opportunity to get a whiff up close and personal at the University of California in Davis, and it exuded a smell that I will never forget," says master gardener Paul James. "In fact, to give you an idea of just how foul smelling it was, rotting meat comes to mind."

First discovered in 1878 by an Italian botanist, the first arum to flower in the U.S. was in 1937. Since then, fewer than 17 have flowered and the reason for the infrequency is clear enough. It takes six to 10 years for the underground stem to store enough energy to flower, and even then, there's no real guarantee. After flowering, the plant produces a single spotted stalk.

The "stalk" is actually a leaf, at the top of which are numerous leaflets. In the wild, this particular species can grow to 20 feet tall and 15 feet wide.

The reason for this flower's peculiar odor is related to the ideal pollinators for this plant--carrion beetles and flesh flies--both of which are abundant on the island of Sumatra. By attracting not one but two insects, the 'corpse flower is able to ensure its survival. And this plant also has thousands of flowers contained within this fleshy central pod, which you can see, thanks to this man-made viewing hole. But incredibly, or thankfully, the flower lasts only three days, and if it's successfully pollinated, it will produce thousands of cherry-sized fruits. Sumatran birds prize the fruit and deposit the seeds. This sets the groundwork for a forest full of the corpse flowers.

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