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