Ran­cid and un­usual

The Compass - - P2011ORTHTE -

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!

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