Monday, 15 September 2008

A Nice Green Leaf: Smells as good as Chanel No.5 (To flesh-eating beetles)


Plants have got very different rules of attraction to human beings, for one simple reason: they can't move. As a consequence, they have to use different techniques - like delicious-smelling perfumes - to make what they want happen. And as it turns out, they are mostly on the case of attracting pollinators, not mates.

When I do volunteer guiding at Kew, one of our most asked-for plants is the Titan Arum (pictured here in flower at the Eden Project). It's no surprise that people want to see it, but what you can't get from the photo is the unforgettable reek of rotting flesh that issues forth from that titanic flower. 

Plants mostly do nice perfumes, so why does the Titan arum have such a problem putting together a pleasing fragrance? Well, Arums in generally are pollinated by flies and flesh-eating beetles - so actually the rotting meat odour is entirely deliberate; this flower smells just as good as Chanel No.5 to a fly.

Despite it ponging out the jungles of Sumatra, Western collectors didn't manage to track down the Titan arum till 1878 when Italian Odoardo Beccari managed to stumble across it growing in the wild. The name, however, was invented by David Attenborough in a fit of rather English modesty - according to his own account he didn't feel comfortable talking about the plant using its Latin name, Amorphophallus, through a Sunday night family TV show.

To complete the dead meat illusion the plant goes through a process called thermogenesis, where it heats up that amazing yellow spike to a good 40 degrees Celsius, sending waves of carrion perfume into the surrounding areas on movements of warm air.


It's hardly surprising that we find the plant off-putting when we get near it, but nevertheless there are a few human beings who get a kick from the terrible pong. For obvious reasons, these nutters are mainly expert horticulturalists who crave all the kudos of getting a plant like this to flower. Tim Grigg, Eden's top Titan Arum expert, pictured here, said just after this one bloomed in August, "As soon as I walked into the Rainforest Biome last night I could smell it a mile off - its rotting flesh-like whiff is really distinctive. I was delighted."

The really interesting question, of course, would be whether Grigg's enhanced greenhouse skills lead to him attracting more horticulturally-minded ladies.   

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