diamond geezer

 Friday, April 22, 2005

Excursion 9: Kew Gardens

Now here's a sight you don't see every day. It's a Titan arum (amorphophallus titanium), and its flowering is one of the rarest events in botany. It's also the tallest flowering plant in the world, and the smelliest, and it's blooming in Kew Gardens right now.

Kew's first Titan arum bloomed in 1889, but then not again until 1926 when the crowds had to be held back by police. Kew now own more than one specimen, each of which they nurture lovingly behind the scenes, so they've been fortunate to have several bloomings over the last few years. Even so this is the first emergence since 2003, and it's all a bit special. This particular Titan arum grew from a bulb weighing a record 77kg (11 stone), with the characteristic big yellow spike first appearing at the end of last month. Since then the plant has slowly grown to its full height of 2.23m (7 foot 4) and the single umbrella-like petal finally unfurled early yesterday morning.

This flower is even more famous for its odour than for its size. Back in its native Indonesia it's known as the 'corpse flower' because it smells of rotting flesh, while others have likened the whiff to dead fish, burnt sugar, dustbins and smelly nappies. The smell has evolved to attract pollinating insects, but it also attracts human beings with cameras in large numbers. I was fully prepared for the agonising stench as I entered the wet tropics zone of the Princess of Wales Conservatory, but I was disappointed. Apparently the flower only releases its evil perfume every few hours and, despite returning to view it twice, the plant resolutely refused to fill my nostrils with noxious pong. Maybe today's visitors will have more luck.

If you want to see the titan arum, you'd better be quick. The flower starts to fade and droop within a day or two, its pollination work complete, so I was fortunate enough to see it yesterday at its very peak. I see from the latest pictures that the single petal has already started to close slightly, and by Monday the central spike will probably have slumped completely. If you don't make it in time, you can view past titan arum bloomings here, here, here, here and here.

I had feared that the rest of Kew Gardens would be some grey-haired middle-aged netherworld full of Latin names and tea shops, but I was very pleasantly surprised. It was a particular treat to wander the full 300 acres beside the Thames in yesterday's glorious spring sunshine. The tulips were out, the rhododendrons were budding, the bees were flying and the bluebells were struggling hard to maintain dominance under threat from an invading yellow weed. My camera steamed up in the humid Palm House, where there were spectacular tropical views looking down from the upper balcony. The cute ducklings blocking the footpath by the lily pond surely deserved their own TV cartoon series, while over by the pagoda I got this year's first whiff of freshly-mown lawn. And everywhere there were benches set amongst the trees and flowers, each with a plaque in memorial of someone who 'loved this place'. I can see why. Even without a botanical superstar on show, Kew Gardens will always be a place to cherish.
by tube: Kew Gardens   by bus: 65

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