For­get the Fes­ti­val... this stink­ing six-foot flower is Ed­in­burgh’s hottest at­trac­tion

Scottish Daily Mail - - News - by Dean Her­bert

IT IS 9.30pm on a Tues­day and I am stand­ing in­side an enor­mous glasshouse in­hal­ing the smell of pu­tre­fy­ing flesh. I’m not alone, ei­ther. Around 300 other peo­ple are queu­ing for a glimpse of the gi­ant Amor­phophal­lus ti­tanum, a foul-smelling six­foot plant that looks more like a prop from a 1960s sci-fi movie than some­thing nat­u­ral to Earth.

For­get the chic restau­rants of Ed­in­burgh’s New Town or the packed bars along the Royal Mile, for this group of plant lovers the Royal Botanic Gar­den is the only nightspot worth vis­it­ing in the cap­i­tal this evening.

Af­ter pay­ing £6.50 for the priv­i­lege, some cir­cle the be­he­moth with awe-struck rev­er­ence, while oth­ers snap glee­ful self­ies. Sci­en­tists buzz around tak­ing mea­sure­ments and ask­ing ques­tions: when should they begin the pol­li­na­tion process? Is the stench in­tense enough yet?

This is what hap­pens when the ‘corpse flower’ – so called be­cause it emits an over­pow­er­ing stink of rot­ten car­rion in or­der to at­tract the flies and bee­tles upon which it re­lies for pol­li­na­tion – bursts into bloom. The rare botan­i­cal odd­ity flow­ers once every few years and even then, only for a few hours at a time.

This only hap­pens be­cause it is thor­oughly pam­pered, sur­rounded by a 30-strong ‘Ti­tan Army’ to at­tend to its every need. The glasshouse is kept at op­ti­mum tem­per­a­ture and hu­mid­ity, while the plant’s 1,000 litre pot is wa­tered and fed on a daily ba­sis with high grade liq­uid fer­tiliser. No won­der it has grown to be­come the big­gest spec­i­men in the world.

In the 15 years since the plant, nick­named New Reekie, ar­rived, it has gained some­thing of a cult fol­low­ing. It has its own Twit­ter and In­sta­gram ac­counts. A Lego model of the flower has been spe­cially made by artist War­ren Elsmore.

The cult of New Reekie is such that it even war­rants its own mer­chan­dise stand where fans can buy post­cards, prints and T-shirts. In celebrity terms it is the Bey­oncé of the botan­i­cal world. Its al­most as racy, too. Its Latin name,

Amor­phophal­lus ti­tanum, trans­lates as ‘gi­ant mis­shapen phal­lus’. David At­ten­bor­ough re­named it ‘Ti­tan arum’ in his se­ries The Pri­vate Life of Plants, fear­ing the orig­i­nal would be ‘too rude’ for BBC viewers.

Fans have been on ten­ter­hooks for weeks as New Reekie edged to­wards flow­er­ing.

The corpse stench reaches its peak on the first night of bloom, leav­ing only a win­dow of a few hours to ex­pe­ri­ence the full, stink­ing glory.

And what a stink it is; a smell, to my nose at least, ly­ing some­where between undi­luted sweat and a land­fill site on a hot day. Nat­u­rally, ev­ery­body present has an opin­ion on it, from dirty nap­pies to a sweaty gym locker. Even the smell of a long un­emp­tied food waste caddy is sug­gested.

So why, when it smells so ghastly, have so many folk dragged them­selves out late on a Tues­day night for a whiff?

Rachel Male, 30, from Ed­in­burgh, said she had been cu­ri­ous about the plant since see­ing its pic­ture on so­cial me­dia. ‘I’ve been fol­low­ing it on In­sta­gram and Twit­ter and I re­ally wanted to see it open,’ she said. ‘So when the mes­sage came out that it was about to flower I had to come along.

‘It’s re­ally in­ter­est­ing to see it up close and to smell it. I think it smells like sul­phur – or that smell you get when food goes off in the fridge every so of­ten. It has been to­tally worth it.’

Ben Brown, 71, re­vealed he drove more than 250 miles to see the flower in 2015. ‘I’ve been in­ter­ested in it for a long time so as soon as I found out it was go­ing to open I came through from Glas­gow,’ he says.

‘The last time this hap­pened I was on a trip up North when I found out and drove all the way here from Dur­ness to have a look. Luck­ily, I only had to come from Glas­gow this time.’

Ricky Brown, 42, from Ed­in­burgh mean­while, is vis­it­ing the corpse flower out of duty.

‘My wife has just given birth to our first son,’ he said. ‘She wanted me to come so I could tell her what it smells like.’

By 10.30pm my eyes are sting­ing with the odour and it has started un­pleas­antly cling­ing to the back of my mouth. This, ap­par­ently, is peak stink, and the mo­ment ev­ery­one has been wait­ing for.

Dr Michael Möller, the gar­den’s molec­u­lar sys­tem­atic tax­onomist, gives the nod for the pol­li­na­tion process to begin.

It is a del­i­cate business. Given the au­thor­i­ties’ dim view of Su­ma­tran bee­tles and flies – which would nor­mally pol­li­nate the flower – it must in­stead be done by hand, with pollen sam­ples from other corpse flow­ers in the UK ap­plied to the tow­er­ing plant’s in­tri­cate in­nards.

With great cer­e­mony, spe­cial­ist sci­en­tific equip­ment – namely a piece of pa­per with a cir­cle cut out of it and a scalpel – are brought out, and two Ti­tan Army foot­sol­diers grip the waxy plant in place as an­other care­fully cuts into it.

By now the yel­low, tongue-like stem is emit­ting a haze of heat not un­like a cloud of steam from its tip in or­der to spread the aroma. Soon, an ar­ray of tiny red flow­ers are vis­i­ble through the hole in the stem and Dr Inayat Olmedo, a world ex­pert on Amor­phophal­lus

ti­tanum, is wear­ing a look of ela­tion sim­i­lar to that usu­ally re­served for peo­ple wit­ness­ing the birth of their first child.

DR Olmedo, who flew in spe­cially from Basel in Switzer­land just hours be­fore the flower be­gan to open, said: ‘We needed to make sure the pa­ram­e­ters were just right for cut­ting the hole, so we could get to the flow­ers and start the pol­li­na­tion.

‘It was a very big mo­ment. Things can go wrong so we had to be very care­ful not to dam­age it.

‘This plant is the big­gest one in the world – it is very fa­mous and peo­ple are fas­ci­nated by it.

‘Some say it smells of fish, oth­ers cheese and some say it smells like rot­ten meat. But each plant has its own dis­tinct smell.’

But there is a cruel twist: hav­ing emit­ted its dis­tinc­tive, corpse-like stench, New Reekie it­self will be­come a corpse.

If the pol­li­na­tion process is suc­cess­ful the plant will bear fruit, which will trig­ger the end of its nat­u­ral life cy­cle af­ter 15 years at the gar­den.

By con­demn­ing New Reekie to death, how­ever, the pol­li­na­tion process will play an im­por­tant role in widen­ing the ge­netic di­ver­sity of the plant, en­sur­ing the species can be con­tin­ued and con­served.

Although there are a hand­ful grow­ing in the UK – the Eden Project in Corn­wall, Kew Gar­dens in Lon­don, Cam­bridge Univer­sity and Paign­ton Zoo all boast their own Ti­tans – the won­der­fully odd corpse flower is ac­tu­ally be­com­ing in­creas­ingly rare. At present, Amor­phophal­lus

ti­tanum is only found in the Bukit Barisan range of moun­tains in West Su­ma­tra, In­done­sia, and is clas­si­fied as vul­ner­a­ble. It fea­tures on the In­ter­na­tional Union for Con­ser­va­tion of Na­ture’s ‘red list’ of en­dan­gered plants.

Dr Pe­ter Wilkie, a tropical for­est botanist at Ed­in­burgh’s Royal Botanic Gar­den, hopes the pol­li­na­tion will help pre­serve the plant for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions.

‘We need to bal­ance the de­mands of the view­ing pub­lic with the need to un­der­take im­por­tant re­search, and col­lect cru­cial data that can be shared with the sci­en­tific and con­ser­va­tion com­mu­nity,’ he said.

In a se­cret part of the Royal Botanic Gar­den a num­ber of younger Amor­phophal­lus ti­tanum plants are be­ing very care­fully cul­ti­vated, with the hope that one day they too will burst into bloom – and emit that ut­terly un­mis­tak­able stench.

Pun­gent: Dr Axel Dal­berg Poulsen with the ‘corpse flower’, and left, check­ing to see if the pol­li­na­tion process has suc­ceeded

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