Friday, August 11, 2006

A stench spreads in Brooklyn

The corpse flower of Brooklyn is almost ready to bloom, reports the New York Times, and like an expectant father Brooklyn waits outside the delivery room.

Hot August is the time for carnivals and county fairs. In Iowa, our country cousins are stuffing themselves with cotton candy and lining up to see the bearded lady. Meanwhile, more sophisticated rubes are rushing to the website of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden to catch a peek at "baby" one of the rarest and worst smelling flowers in creation.

Rarest? Yes, amorphophallus titanum seldom flowers in cultivation, and one hasn't bloomed in New York City since 1938. But worst smelling? Well, yes again. According to published reports the flower emits an odor suggestive of rotting meat. Reporters at the 1938 event said they were "downed by the smell" and workers at the Garden have been issued face masks in anticipation of the bloom. Awful as the flower's stench may be, it serves to attract the carrion beetles and sweat bees the plant relies upon for reproduction. Drawn by the horrible odor, the bugs spread the flower's pollen from one corpse flower to another.

For evolutionary biologists this is a variation of the chicken and the egg question. What came first: the stench, or the flower's dependancy on specific insects? If the plant had no odor, bugs wouldn't visit the flower. But without the bugs, the plant coudn't reproduce.


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