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Sorry, Corpse Flower Fans—The Chicago Botanic Garden's Stinky 'Spike' Won't Bloom

By Marielle Shaw in Arts & Entertainment on Aug 30, 2015 10:40PM

We have kept a watchful eye on the webcam, Twitter page and Facebook feed for Spike, the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Amorphophallus titanum, or “corpse flower,” since we learned its rare blooming period was imminent.

This Sumatran flower is quite rare, requires exacting conditions including the proper soil mix, temperature and humidity level to bloom, and even then, only blooms around once a decade. Excitement has been understandably high, since Spike sent up a flower shoot earlier this month.

Sadly, it was determined Sunday by members of the Chicago Botanic Garden’s horticulture and conservation science departments that the delay in Spike’s blossoming is indicative that the plant does not have enough energy to open on its own. While this is disappointing for those of us who were planning to rush to the garden to take in the stench, it’s still a win for research.

Sunday morning at 10 a.m., Botanic Garden staffers Tim Pollak, known as “Titan Tim” and Shannon Still, removed the flower's spathe, the purple toned modified leaf that surrounds the base of the flower. The removal serves to help them inspect the male and female flowers inside for viability, which will determine whether or not they can be used to pollinate other corpse flowers at this time.

We got a chance to speak with Titan Tim a bit on the subject of Spike. Here's what he had to say:

Chicagoist: We were sorry to hear that Spike would not be blooming. With a bloom being such a rarity, was this outcome a possibility from the beginning?

Tim Pollak: We always knew that there's a possibility of failure. As a horticulturist and botanist, there's always a possibility of failure, no matter what it is. Plants are plants; they can disappoint anybody, even home always want to point a finger and say why, but sometimes we just don't know. We can say 'tradtionally tomatoes like it warmer to produce fruit,' but this wasn't the case. It's a known fact that sometimes they just don't have the energy. There's not much documentation or records of things like this because there's been less than 100 blooming in cultivation, so the more we study and get this stuff out there for other botanic gardens to learn, we become resources ourselves, and that's what it's all about. It takes it from the horticulture side to the science side.

Right now, what we have on display is something most people never actually get ot see- the true length of the spadix, the two rings of flowers...and that's something a lot of gardens don't display.

Chicagoist: Do you think we learn more from the plant not opening than if it did?

Pollak: Yeah. In talking to other gardens to really determine what happened, what's going on. If you want to find out the viability of Spike here, you have to look at the flowers, we have to find out how mature they are. They could have already flowered five days ago and we wouldn't know it because it's all covered up (by the spathe). That's why we had to do what we had to do. Several days ago we inspected the flower with our hands and the flowers weren't mature, no stickiness, he never really produced a strong odor, and that goes to the development of the female flowers. We had to do what we had to do, instead of keep saying 'another day, another day, we don't know.' We noticed it was becoming wilty and dry at the top, and that indicated to us that something had gone wrong.

Chicagoist: What about the garden's other 8 corpse flowers? Are they of similar age or maturity?

Pollak: We have different ages—some within a year or two of each other, some younger. We have ones that are just leafing out. The silver lining is that it wasn't just Spike, and Spike is still alive, so there's several stories here. He'll go back to the production greenhouse and go dormant, and hopefully in a few years, bloom again.

We'll wish Spike and Titan Tim a good recovery from all the action, and in the meantime, the conservation scientists at the Chicago Botanic Garden will continue to cultivate Spike and his eight corpse flower friends back in the greenhouse. If you find yourself blue about our stinky friend’s demise, just remember that in science, you sometimes learn more from failure than success. We hope that more is discovered about these curious plants, so more can experience the rare bloom for themselves.