He has name. His name is Spike. I saw him with my own two eyes, and he is a massive, glorious beast. Spike is the name of the Chicago Botanic Garden’s goliath “corpse flower,” or the Titan Arum. It took 12 years for this flower, which is actually a collection of flowers, to reach the height 68’’. Let me just say, it’s simply humbling when you realize that one of those dainty flower things can be taller, wider, heavier — not to mention smarter — than a human being.
One Friday, my sister, friend, and I stumbled upon the idea of going to the Chicago Botanic Garden. We weren’t even aware of the hype, or Godzilla-like specimen that awaited us. Once we arrived, it was clear though, the people had come for Spike. His ribbed, purple face was plastered all over the gift shop. He was on shirts and bags. On cooking aprons and postcards. He was the star of the show. Little kids were tugging on sleeves and whining, “Mom, I want to smell the stink.”
What stink? We wanted to smell the stink, too.
Then, there he was. In the center of the Semitropical Greenhouse, reaching toward the glassed in heavens. People were crowding around him, snapping selfies with the monster.
My sister, friend, and I stood with our mouths agape, taking in the near six foot “corpse flower.” The Titan Arum, native to Indonesia, has a rotting flesh smell that attracts pollinators. And not cute little bees, butterflies, or hummingbirds. No, this flower with its nightmare bloom has its heart set on dung beetles and flies. The tall center part of the bloom, the spadix, heats up to help disperse the odor far distances. The spadix heats up to 98F, the same temperature as the human body. Since the flower’s natural habitat is the rainforest, the greenhouse had to be kept to humid temperatures of 75 to 90 percent saturation at all times.
The time of our visit was important. The flower was set to bloom any night (it blooms at night), possibly the evening of our visit. Once we got our fill, we wandered over to the other botanic displays, all lovely and presentable in their own right. But our thoughts lingered on Spike. We stayed until closing. Though the rest of the grounds were hard for us to scope out, the lights were still on Spike when we returned. We took one last whiff and crept to my car in the darkness.
Over the next week, my sister alerted me that there was a Kardashian-like cam on Spike at all times. “Still hasn’t bloomed,” my sister informed me at the end of each day. Then on August 24, Spike stopped working overtime.
When the botanists were asked why the flower did not bloom, they responded, “We’re not entirely sure. In nature, plants have the choice of reproducing or surviving. Spike ‘chose’ to survive, having run out of energy to complete reproduction.”
The botanists talk about plants as if they have actual “choices” to make, and this by far sticks with me beyond anything. Maybe there’s something inside me that is still cheering Spike on; that is grateful Spike ‘chose’ to save his energy for himself rather than relinquish his true power in front of the cameras and hungry people eager to see him perform — to emit a smell so foul that eyes would water, grandmothers would dry heave. “Summon the flies!” we all cheered.
“Nah,” said Spike, and then he fucking quit.
When botanists learned that Spike would not bloom, they opened him up. They tried their best to harvest the pollen, or perform in front of viewers “the delicate procedure of removing the spathe by cutting around the base of the flower just above where it attaches to the stalk of the plant.” (This sounds to me like performing an autopsy on the still living, but what do I know? Apparently, there is a slight risk to the procedure, but it’s not entirely harmful to the plant.)
Gardens typically divvy up pollen so that other plants may thrive. It turns out Spike had very little pollen to offer. And his female flowers weren’t ready to receive pollen. And guess what: there was no rotting meat smell. Instead, a “slight smell” only if you held it up very close to your nose.
The Botanic Garden was simply floored that people, 75,000 to be exact, would come from miles around just to see Spike bloom in person and from their computers and phones. My sister and I were among the many texting each other updates on the flower’s progress. Spike is a natural born conversation starter.
Spike would have been the first Titan Arum to bloom in Chicagoland, but he didn’t. And it’s a crying shame because he raked in a lot of attention. Can you see where this is going?
The garden has seven other flowers just like Spike. “Spike, who?” read the Chicago Tribune headline on September 29. Now, in comes Alice, who debuts today at 7 p.m. The extremely rare sibling of Spike is now powdering up and getting ready for her big show.
These flowers are entirely unpredictable. In nature they only flower once in 1000 days, and the bloom only lasts for three days. Very few people have ever seen them flower. There is fairly little research on them though they were officially discovered in 1878 by the Italian natural scientist Odoardo Beccari. I think one was featured in a Simpson’s episode.
Spike in the meantime, lies dormant in a freezer, ready to bloom another day (or not). To which I say, that’s okay Spike, you do what you gotta do.