BEIJING—As the scalpel sliced into the towering celebrity, a throng of people strained against a belt stanchion to glimpse history in the making. A few cuts later, just before 9:00 p.m. on 28 May, Niu Xia removed a 5-centimeter-square chunk of green flesh and inserted a syringe. The crowd was riveted. No matter whether the operation was a success, Niu knew that her patient had only hours to live.
The celebrity was titan arum. That name should ring a bell—if you're a plant lover. Titan arum, or the corpse flower (Amorphophallus titanum), has the tallest unbranched inflorescence on the planet. Before opening, the flowerlike spathe resembles a gigantic cabbage pierced by a stalklike spadix that can top 3 meters. The titan arum here at Beijing Botanical Garden (BBG) wasn't quite so tall—2.16 meters, to be precise—but it was the first to bloom in China, and it drew hundreds of enthusiasts to the western edge of Beijing on a Saturday evening. Titan arum "is one of the very few 'charismatic megaplants' that can rival the charismatic megafauna that command so much attention in relation to conservation and public awareness," says Stephen Blackmore, Queen's Botanist at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh in the United Kingdom. "For me, it is the botanic garden equivalent of the giant panda."
Titan arum is as ornery as a panda too. Italian naturalist Odoardo Beccari discovered the gargantuan flower in the Barisan Mountains of western Sumatra in 1878 and sent seeds to the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, where it took 11 years for some of the world's most skilled green thumbs to coax the plant to flower. In addition to being famously hard to cultivate, titan arum is notoriously noxious: When the spathe opens, revealing a burgundy-red inner surface, the tiny female flowers nestled inside exude an odor like that of a rotting corpse. That attracts its pollinators: carrion-eating beetles and flesh flies. The ghastly smell disturbed two BBG staffers who had survived the horrific Tangshan earthquake in 1976; it reminded them of the stench of corpses in the rubble. "They couldn't stand to be near the plant," says Guo Ling, a horticultural professor at BBG.
In one respect, the corpse flower truly is the living dead. Cultivated individuals almost without fail begin dying hours after the spathe unfurls. The titan arum here in BBG's conservatory is no exception. Around 10 p.m. on 29 May, its spadix collapsed. That devastated Niu, a BBG horticultural specialist, who had raised the titan arum from when it was a mere tuber. "She cried all night" after the spadix crumpled, Guo says. "It was like it was her baby."
The withering titan arum may yet have babies of its own. Half a world away, the botanic garden in Edinburgh has a titan that is also expected to bloom for the first time, next month. Blackmore spent a couple days at BBG last week after a visit to a field station in southwest China's Yunnan Province. Before returning home, he and BBG colleagues hatched a plan to collect pollen here and mail it to Edinburgh, where Blackmore's team will attempt to pollinate its titan arum.
Under the glare of spectators and flashbulbs, Niu sliced into the spathe and extracted yellow sacs filled with pollen as fine as sand. As the operation unfolded, BBG Director Zhao Shiwei looked on. If all goes well, his researchers will help Edinburgh join an elite roster of botanic gardens around the world that have artificially pollinated titan arum. Zhao hovered behind the stanchion like an expectant father in a hospital delivery ward. "I'm not nervous," he insisted. In a few weeks, Zhao will learn whether the titan arum in Scotland has borne a cluster of 500 or so dark-orange berries. Then he can break out the cigars.