Those who’ve experienced the scent of the enormous Titan Arum flower compare it to the stench of rotting flesh that’s been sitting out in the sun for a couple of days.
San Diego County residents can decide for themselves this weekend when a Titan Arum, more commonly known as the “corpse flower,” is expected to reach its peak bloom at the San Diego Botanic Garden in Encinitas.
The rare occurrence - just a handful of these strange Indonesian plants bloom each year at public gardens worldwide - is expected to draw thousands of visitors, just as it has the last two times the garden hosted a bloom in 2009 and 2006.
“It’s gorgeous. It’s beautiful. It’s huge, and it deserves all the attention it generates,” said Julian Duval, San Diego Botanic Garden’s president and CEO. “It looks like something other-worldly, like something you’d see in a science-fiction movie with computer-generated graphics.”
The plant, its full Latin name is Amorphophallus titanium, is native to the rain forests of Sumatra and Borneo, where some blooms have been recorded up to 10 feet in height. Its life cycle is about 40 years and its blooming cycle, though unpredictable, occurs roughly every 5 to 10 years, Duval said.
The blooming process takes about 30 days from start to finish. During that month, the spearhead-shaped blossom will grow from the ground up to a height of four to six feet, averaging a growth rate of 3 or more inches per day.
Finally at peak bloom, the purple, velvety petal sheath opens up like an inverted umbrella to reveal the beige spadix at the center.
For just two days, the flower will emit the rotting corpse scent that, in the rainforest, attracts native carrion-consuming beetles and flesh flies that pollinate the tiny florets at its center to produce seed berries.
Duval said that during peak bloom the plant can heat itself and pulse out waves of odiferous steam to expand the range of its scent. After that, the bloom closes back up, collapses and decays and the plant enters a brief dormancy.
The plant blooming this week at the garden is on loan from the greenhouse at Cal State Fullerton. Greenhouse manager Edward Read drove the plant down in a van last weekend and it’s now situated in the garden’s bamboo forest.
Read has grown several Titan Arum plants as part of a collaboration between the university, the botanic garden, the Fullerton Arboretum and botany enthusiast James Boohman. It was Boohman who lent the first Titan Arum for the garden’s first bloom display 11 years ago.
Without carrion beetles to pollinate the plants, the Fullerton greenhouse staff has manually pollinated the plants during each bloom cycle to produce offspring. Some of the babies born through that collaboration are now growing at the botanic garden, though none have bloomed so far, Duval said.
The plants don’t like temperatures below 60 degrees, but Duval said they’ll soon have a permanent and much-warmer home in the Dickinson Family Education Conservatory, which will be built next spring at the Encinitas garden.
Public interest in this week’s bloom has been high. Duval said during past blooms, he had to keep the gates open at night to accommodate visitors, who drove in from as far away as Arizona.
The garden is the only place where the public can see a Titan Arum in bloom in San Diego. At least for a few days a year, Duval said the garden can rival the San Diego Zoo in mass tourist appeal.
“The Titan Arum is our panda,” he said, comparing the flower to the zoo’s top attraction. “This plant gives us the ability to share the beauty of plants and nature. When we can put plants at center stage like this, that’s a thrill for us.”
San Diego Botanic Garden is as 230 Quail Gardens Drive in Encinitas. Park hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. General admission is $14, with a $2 discount for students, seniors and military. Children ages 3 to 12 get in for $8. Parking is $2. Call 760.436.3036 or visit sdbgaren.org.