Eeew! Domes’ corpse flower draws crowds

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel - - Milwaukee Wisconsin - Meg Jones

There’s a rea­son the ti­tan arum is known as the corpse flower — it ex­udes a mighty stink when it blooms every seven to 10 years to en­sure its sur­vival.

The Mitchell Park Domes’ corpse flower drew creatures in mul­ti­tudes on Wed­nes­day though in­stead of car­rion flies, it was hu­man be­ings armed with cam­eras and smart­phones.

As par­ents clicked pic­tures of kids hold­ing their noses, some com­plained it didn’t smell as bad as they thought it would while oth­ers leaned close for a whiff and then im­me­di­ately backed away.

A steady stream of vis­i­tors flowed through the Domes af­ter Mil­wau­kee County Parks of­fi­cials is­sued an alert that the corpse flower was ex­pected to open on Wed­nes­day. It’s a rel­a­tively short win­dow — corpse flow­ers typ­i­cally bloom and stink for only 24 to 48 hours.

Al­most all Domes vis­i­tors turn left af­ter buy­ing a ticket and visit the show dome first but on Wed­nes­day most turned right to step in to the trop­i­cal dome where the corpse flower was on prom­i­nent dis­play.

When asked to de­scribe the odor, trop­i­cal dome hor­ti­cul­tur­ist Mary Braun­re­iter said, “You know when you find a rot­ten, dead chip­munk in your garage? It’s nasty.”

As if on cue, the door to the trop­i­cal dome opened and Braun­re­iter, who was stand­ing about 25 feet away in the en­try area, said, “Wow, I just got a whiff.”

A na­tive of Su­ma­tra jun­gles, the ti­tan arum — for hor­ti­cul­ture nerds the full name is Amor­phophal­lus ti­tanum — grows an un­der­ground tu­ber that weighs at least 20 to 40 pounds be­fore it flow­ers. Since they’re not self-pol­li­nat­ing, corpse flow­ers de­pend on in­sects for pol­li­na­tion.

Braun­re­iter noted that the flower is the color of rot­ting meat and so is the smell — per­fect for in­duc­ing car­rion flies, dung bee­tles and other in­sects to land, walk around a bit and then fly off to an­other ti­tan arum in the jun­gle and leave be­hind pollen.

The Domes got its first ti­tan arum from a tu­ber off a corpse flower plant at the Univer­sity of Wis­con­sin a cou­ple decades ago, said Braun­re­iter. That orig­i­nal plant even­tu­ally rot­ted and died but sev­eral tu­bers from the Domes’ first ti­tan arum are still liv­ing and spend most of their time in the ad­ja­cent green­house be­cause when it’s not send­ing out a leaf or flower, it looks rather or­di­nary.

The plant grows a big leaf each year which wilts and then be­comes dor­mant. That’s re­peated seven to 10 times be­fore a flower ar­rives. Hor­ti­cul­tur­ists never know in ad­vance if the ti­tan arum will flower, but two weeks ago they got ex­cited when they no­ticed it was dif­fer­ent. This is the first time any of the 10 corpse flow­ers at the Domes has bloomed.

A sign next to the ti­tan arum fea­tured the car­toon char­ac­ter skunk “Pepe Le Pew” — the name picked through a con­test on so­cial me­dia by the Mil­wau­kee County Parks Depart­ment.

Diane Lem­bck of Franklin stopped at the Domes to see the ti­tan arum be­fore go­ing for a hike on the nearby Hank Aaron State Trail, where she hoped to see and smell much more pleas­antly fra­grant flow­ers.

“It’s a very un­usual plant,” she said. “It al­most doesn’t seem real.”

Jeremiah Pike and his wife, Alison, were vis­it­ing from Ot­tawa, Ill., for the Brew­ers-Cubs game at Miller Park and found out about the corpse flower while re­search­ing things to see and do in Mil­wau­kee.

“We had some time to kill and we didn’t re­ally want to tail­gate. This is some­thing I’ve never seen,” said Jeremiah Pike.

CHRIS KOHLEY / MIL­WAU­KEE JOUR­NAL SEN­TINEL

Patti Konieczka re­acts af­ter smelling the newly bloomed corpse flower at Mitchell Park Domes on Wed­nes­day. Konieczka com­pared the scent to "days old garbage."

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