Rancid and unusual
It is no secret that I enjoy travelling, made evident by subjects covered in past columns. The botanical gardens of New York and Chicago, The Domes of Milwaukee, Central and South American jungles and Kew Gardens in London, England are some of my favourite sites visited.
Each time I visit a new place it doesn’t take long for me to “sniff out” horticulture and botany — like a vulture on a carcass, I swoop onto these sites with great vigor!
One of my most enjoyable pastimes at any one of these sites has always been to search for the rarest and most unusual plants on display, and outside of hiking over the island of Madagascar, there are few places on earth that offer more unique species than Kew Gardens in London, adjacent to the river Thames.
In the plant kingdom there are definitely some species that most people would acknowledge are highly unusual and these specimens are what I love to hunt down. This week I will discuss some of the world’s strangest plant species, many of which are on display at Kew, a public garden tracing its roots to the 18th century.
There is likely no greater, and more impressive flower on earth then the Titan Arum, oramorphophallus titaniumand in the Princess of Wales Conservatory at Kew one can often see this marvel in bloom!
This giant flower produces a massive inflorescence ( flowering structure) consisting of a crimson or purple spathe or leaf-like structure wrapped around the base of a massive spadix or flowering spike, which can reach more than three metres in height. The spathe is the shape of an upturned bell and has attractive frilled edging.
This flower is a wonder to behold but don’t forget your gas mask because the nauseating smell emitted by this giant flower is similar to that of rotting flesh — used to attract its pollinators. When in bloom this flower can be smelled a mile away, literally, but the bloom is stupendous to view. For those with weak stomachs, maybe a picture will suffice!
In Kew’s Herbarium yet another “deathly and foul flower” can be seen. Rafflesia Arnoldii, or the corpse flower as it is often known, is a magnificent parasitic plant which produces the world’s largest flower bloom on a plant with no real stem, leaves or roots. This species lives inside the woody vines of the grape family in tropical Asia and is only seen when its huge buds burst from its host and blooms along the forest floor.
Blooms of the Corpse flower are thick and fleshy, covered in bright orangey red to crimson spots and can stretch more than one metre across but like the Titan Arum produce blooms that stench of rotten meat, hence the name “corpse”.
Back in the Princess of Wales Conservatory, one can see a living fossil resembling an alien life form.
Welwitschia mirabilisor Tree Tumbo consists of only two leaves and a stem with roots. Its two leaves continue to grow on the ground in its natural arid landscape simply growing wider and wider while rarely reaching a height of more than a metre.
These amazing plants are thought to be a relic of the Jurassic period and can live for up to 1500 years, a lump of dead-looking, curly leaves on the ground. I personally had never seen one before visiting Kew and would suggest people search the species online as a simple description does not do it credit.
Finally there was one other species I simply had to see while in London: the “dinosaur tree” orwollemia nobilisgrowing outside Kew’s Orangery in a small cage!
This truly bizarre-looking tree was thought to have become extinct some 120 million years ago — having been known only through fossil discoveries — until a small forest of them was discovered in an Australian gorge in 1994. Fewer than 100 trees were found at that time and since then breeding has produced specimens for select botanical collections around the world.
This tree produces strange bark that looks like bubbles of chocolate and leaves that are fernlike in shape but sharp to the touch. The tallest tree found was over 20 metres in height but at Kew the tree I saw was only about three metres. An amazing sight to see, this “living fossil” is from the time of dinosaurs and looks the part!
So, clearly, anyone who has an interest in horticulture and is visiting London, the Botanical gardens and greenhouses at Kew are a must. Just don’t forget your gas mask unless you love the smell of rotting meats!