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Crowds Flock to See Giant, Stinking Flower

July 31, 1996

LONDON (AP) _ Like bluebottle flies, Londoners swarmed to Kew Gardens Wednesday, following reports of a giant flower that stinks like rotting meat.

The huge titan arum blossomed as promised, but the stench failed to live up to its billing.

``Disappointing,″ said 11-year-old Austin Hardy, who came with five giggling friends wearing white masks and anticipating a superb gross-out.

It was the first time in 33 years that an arum opened its pungent petals at Kew. Diane Thomas, one of two mothers accompanying the boys, said the 6-foot-long blossom was smaller than she expected.

``I won’t wait 33 years to see it again,″ she said.

If the group had arrived a little earlier, their noses might have had more of a challenge. On Tuesday night, the blossom was stinking to high heaven, said Peter Boyce, a botanist at Kew.

``It was quite overpowering at about eight o’clock _ a mixture of rotting flesh and burning sugar with ammonia over the top,″ Boyce said. ``It was a bit like a rubbish bin in summer time.″

Greg Redwood, manager of garden development at Kew, described the Tuesday night stink as ``really disgusting. ... more like rotten crabs.″

Titan arums, the largest flowers in the world, have bloomed only four times before at Kew Gardens: in 1889, 1901, 1926 and 1963. In their natural environment, the rainforests of Sumatra, they bloom every two or three years, Redwood said.

Botanists and curiosity-seekers had been waiting since Monday for the 10-foot-tall plant to bloom. Now its bell shape has fully opened to reveal a rich crimson color.

Smell or no smell, it was a stunner.

``The colors were beautiful, cream and a deep wine color. It was spectacular,″ said visitor Lee Rogers.

In the last few days, the flower grew at an incredible rate _ between 4 inches and 6 inches a day.

Hundreds of people thought it was worth waiting in a line 500 yards long to get into the conservatory and file through the hot, heavily misted jungle environment to see the arum.

Three perspiring policemen kept the line moving.

Simone McGlynn and her three children liked the blossom so much they went through twice.

``They wanted photographs to show their teachers,″ she said.

Clare Brunt said the flower was ``a bit like a work of art.″ But her friend Polly Fairbairns laughed and wondered if it might have come off a space ship.

``It’s quite amazing. It looks like something out of `Star Trek,‴ agreed Londoner Katherine Huxtable. ``It’s mesmerizing.″

Jenny Metcalfe called the blossom fascinating.

``I especially wanted to see if its smell was like a plant I ran across in Kenya, which must be related. It was absolutely putrid.″

The odor of rotting flesh is strongest when the blossom first opens, and diminishes after a couple of days, naturalist Sir David Attenborough said Wednesday.

In Sumatra, Indonesia, the titan arum is called ``the corpse flower.″

Attenborough said the aroma is produced to attract the attentions of the sweat bee, an insect that lives in Sumatra’s rainforests.

``Flowers aren’t designed to smell nice for the benefit of humans,″ he said. ``Some do because they are pollinated by honey bees; but bluebottles or blowflies will do the job just as well.″

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