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article imageGiant ''Corpse Flowers'' Are The Big Draw At Bogor, Indonesia

By Peter Janssen     Dec 17, 2001 in Lifestyle
BOGOR, INDONESIA (dpa) - When a Bunga Bangkai (Corpse Flower) blooms at the Bogor Botanical Garden, 40 kilometres south of Jakarta, it attracts more than just flies, carrion beetles and sweat bees.
Last August, one of the garden's 10 usually dormant Bunga Bangkai tubers pushed up a flower that reached a height of 295 centimetres with petals as wide as one meter.
The pungent blossom, which could be smelled at a distance of 100 metres, attracted more than 20,000 visitors to Bogor Botanical Garden, including Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri, said Jusuf Ismail, a guide.
Bunga Bangkai bloomings are a rare event, occurring about once every three years at Bogor and a handful of other botanical gardens around the world, such as in Sydney and Bonn, that are fortunate enough to own specimens of the giant tuber plant, which is endemic only to Sumatra, Indonesia's giant northern island.
The tuber, which goes by the Latin name Amorphophallus titanum (or giant shapeless phallus), was first discovered in the jungles of Sumatra by Italian botanist Odoardo Beccari in 1878.
Believed to be the largest flower in the world, the tallest recorded fully erect Amorphophallus titanum reached a whopping 3.5 metres.
Beccari sent seeds of the plant to the Royal Botanic Garden Kew where the first blossoming of the species in culture occurred in 1889.
There have been only 11 recorded bloomings of the plant in the United States, according to The Huntington Library, Art Collection & Botanical Garden website.
Blossomings in culture are rare and highly unpredictable, given the natural life cycle of the Amorphophallus titanum.
"The tuber is usually dormant for six months to two years," said Yuzammi Yunis, an Aroid specialist at Bogor Botanic Garden.
The tubers, which can weigh up to 120 kilograms when mature, send out a single leaf plant about once every four months, which dies after a few weeks.
"If it is not mature enough it will just send out a leaf again, until the tuber is strong enough to produce a flower," said Yunis.
Although Bogor Botanical Garden has ten Amorphophallus titanum tubers in residence, only one has blossomed. The same tuber, weighing about 100 kilograms, that flowered last August also blossomed in 1994 and 1997, each time drawing thousands of visitors to the garden.
The plant will only blossom during the rainy season, which lasts from October to March in Indonesia.
The rare flower is not only remarkable for its size, and shape, but also for its odour, which smells something like "a lot of dead rats," according to Bogor guide Ismail, hence the Indonesian name - Bunga Bangkai, or "Corpse Flower."
The stench, in nature, is to attract carrion beetles and sweat bees to pollinate the plant.
Besides its pungent odour the Bunga Bangkai will also literally let off steam between 8:00 to 10:00 p.m. at night.
"During that time the flower is ready to accept pollen and the temperature inside the flower really increases, while the temperature outside cools off at night, so that why it lets off steam," said Yunis.
The whole blooming process lasts only two days. In the wild, at least two plants must be flowering at the same time for successful cross-pollination to occur, which helps explain why the species is quickly becoming scarce in its native Sumatra.
Another threat is deforestation.
"A lot of forests have already been destroyed, so this plant's natural habitat is threatened," said Yunis, one of Indonesia's few Amorphophallus titanum experts.
Adding to the tuber's problems has been overhunting of hornbills, which in nature eat the Bunga Bangkai fruit, which reportedly don't taste as bad as the flower smells, and then help scatter its seeds in the wild.
In an effort to help preserve the increasingly rare plant, Yunis is researching its possible medicinal applications at the National Institute of Sciences (LIPI) in collaboration with The Royal Botanic Gardens of Sydney.
"My duty is to find out what kind of value the plant has so I can teach villagers to preserve them," said Yunis. At present, the Bunga Bangkai's horrific odour is not proving a successful survival mechanism in Sumatra, where villagers are increasingly encroaching the forests and see no reason to preserve the smelly plant.
"They just cut them down," said Yunis.
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