One would assume that the stench of smelly feet, animal decomposition or bad breath could clear a room, but when those scents are emitted by a flower in the local botanical garden, it’s a different story entirely.
The Amorphophallus titanium, or titan arum, or, more fondly “The Amazing Stinko” is a plant native to the rainforests of Sumatra, Indonesia, and while rare in the wild and in cultivation, Omaha’s own Lauritzen Gardens is celebrating the titan arum’s second floral bloom since 2017.
To put that in perspective, just under 300 plants have ever bloomed in cultivation worldwide. The first cultivated bloom of the titan arum occurred in 1889 at the Kew Gardens in England. That same plant did not flower again until 1926.
When it does bloom, the titan arum emits a foul odor and attracts pollinators like flies and carrion beetles. The plant also rises in temperature to about 96 degrees Fahrenheit, which amplifies the putrid perfume.
Megan Stanek, Lauritzen Gardens’ manager of the Marjorie K. Daugherty Conservatory explained its unique beauty—and its unique aroma.
“It produces chemicals that are found in sweaty feet, animal decomposition and bad breath,” Stanek said. “Like, all of these smells combined. I think people come to see it because they think it can’t smell that bad.”
The good news is, for the most part, the Amazing Stinko isn’t so stinky. The life cycle of a titan arum is a curious thing, as it is the largest single leaf plant in the world.
It starts off as a large corm underground that goes through about a year long cycle, where, most years, it grows into a large leaf with complex leaflets. This leaf then lasts for a year and takes all its energy into a long resting period where the corm grows again. Once every three to 10 years, the corm grows large enough to go through a flower cycle, which is when the plant gives off its signature scent.
The flower only remains in bloom for a couple days and then once again dies back down into its corm core, and the odd life cycle begins again.
“I’m not sure that we would classify the titan arum as a true understory plant, but we aim to develop a natural look to show people that it may be more understory in the forests of Indonesia,” Stanek said. “Our tropical house is conducive to making it happy. We have the proper humidity, and especially when it’s flowering, the heat amplifies the smell.”
The last time the Amazing Stinko bloomed at Lauritzen Gardens was the summer of 2017, meaning it has come around to flower again in just two years, instead of its usual 3 to ten.
Stanek said she is unsure as to why this phenomenon has occurred again so quickly but she is excited to use it as an opportunity to network with other botanical garden experts across the country to learn more about this peculiar plant.
“I reached out to the Chicago Botanical Gardens, and I’m hoping to do a pollen exchange this go around,” Stanek said. “They’re really working hard on collecting leaves to increase the genetic diversity of the plant in Chicago, so I’m wondering if the cross pollination across all these different lineages may be causing this two year period now.”
Despite the inconsistent timing of the Amazing Stinko’s blooms, Stanek said garden-goers are infatuated with the plant year-round.
“Being in the conservatory, we get questions all the time even when the pot is empty and the corm is underground,” Stanek said. “Visitors are like, ‘where’s Stinko? What’s going on with Stinko?’ It increases our visitor numbers for a condensed time frame for about two weeks when it blooms, but it creates interest to check up on his progress. It’s like a relationship. Like, ‘where’s my buddy?’”
Stanek also said that the Omaha gardens only have one Stinko, while other cities have multiple titan arums in their botanical gardens, creating a more individualized connection to Lauritzen guests.
“People who are plant people may come more than once to see the process,” Stanek said, in regards to the rare bloom. “It is so unique that it takes all this energy from one leaf and puts it into its corm year after year.”
As for the green thumb side of things? The titan arum needs well-drained soil, as not to rot the bulb when the plant is dormant. Stanek said her team is careful when checking the plant’s progress and giving it a boost when it’s time to bloom.
While the Amazing Stinko hasn’t stunk up the place at the time of publishing this story, Stanek said his time is soon. She’s on call with her horticulture department to monitor Stinko’s development over the next week. The bloom happens so quickly, so The Lauritzen Gardens will be holding extended hours for guests when the time comes. Visitors can check social media regularly to get the 4-1-1 on the Amazing Stinko during this short bloom cycle.
“Right now, the whole team is running on the excitement,” Stanek said. “It’ll be interesting to see if after this round of titan arums blooming, if it’ll be another two years, or what happens next. It’s a neat opportunity to contribute to the bigger picture.”
The titan arum is located in the tropical house of the Marjorie K. Daugherty Conservatory at Lauritzen Gardens. Standard garden admission rates apply ($10+tax adults, $5+tax children 6-12, free for children 5 and under. Garden members are admitted free).