Scientist Discovers New Stinky Flower Species
Air Date: Week of June 1, 2012
When it comes to the plant world, one person’s stinky, misshapen flower is another one’s charismatic bliss. Ari Daniel Shapiro reports on a botanist who went to Madagascar and returned with a new species of the smelly corpse flower.
CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth, I'm Steve Curwood. The natural world is woven together like a beautiful tapestry. But the beauty of the individual threads can be debatable and is very much in the eye of the beholder. Reporter Ari Daniel Shapiro has a story about a plant that would certainly catch your eye, and probably your nose, as well.
SHAPIRO: Just inside this tropical greenhouse at the University of Utah is a potted plant.
WAHLERT: This is it.
SHAPIRO: Gregory Wahlert traveled over 10,000 miles to bring it back from Madagascar. He really wanted that thing, but you’d never suspect it was worth all the trouble he had to go through. It looks kinda ordinary. Two dull brown buds snake upwards out of the dry, rocky soil in the pot.
But Wahlert had his reasons. To understand his thinking, we have to rewind the clock. Wahlert’s a botanist, and in 2006 he was collecting tree violets in Madagascar. A few miles off the northwest coast sits a tiny island called Nosy Ankarea.
WAHLERT: This small island is a block of basalt lava that has just risen up out of the Indian Ocean.
SHAPIRO: Wahlert wanted to look for violets there, but he couldn’t just show up with his shovel and a plant press. The island is sacred.
WAHLERT: For maybe centuries, the Sakalav ethnic group had buried their rulers – their kings, if you like – on this island. And so before we could go collecting, we had to ask permission from the village elders.
SHAPIRO: Ultimately, he got it. Wahlert packed up his supplies and camping gear, and hired a local boat to take him over.
WAHLERT: Up on top, the soil is extremely rocky, and it’s very hot – bone dry.
SHAPIRO: And yet, he found his tree violets. But not that’s all.
WAHLERT: But I also found this other plant in full bloom growing all over the place. Spectacular, charismatic plants.
SHAPIRO: And what makes a plant charismatic?
WAHLERT: A beautiful flower, uh, maybe some sort of scent.
SHAPIRO: And this plant had both. Sitting atop each plant’s four-foot tall tan and purple stalk was a short stack of dozens of tiny black and yellow flowers, which were tucked inside a purple polka-dotted leafy sheath. And then bursting out of those flower stacks – a pale green, foot-long, suggestive-looking – well, maybe it’s best to trot out the genus name here. Amorphophallus.
WAHLERT: Kind of an X-rated botanical name. It means misshapen phallus.
SHAPIRO: And that’s exactly what it looks like. The very top of this phallic part of the plant looks as if it started to melt, and then re-solidified. And it reeks.
WAHLERT: Kinda smells like cheesy – rotting cheese, but when you get your nose down in there, it smells like a, a cross between feces and carrion. It’s really an awful smell.
SHAPIRO: So, in this case, the smell may not be exactly charismatic to us, but to insects – it’s pure bliss.
WAHLERT: They trick the insects into thinking they’re landing on a dead carcass. So the insects crawl around on the flowers, and then they’re tricked again to another flower. And in this way, these plants can cross-pollinate.
SHAPIRO: So, anyway, back to the sacred island . Wahlert saw numerous patches of these plants in full bloom. And then, his first night on the island, he fell ill with malaria that he’d gotten earlier in his trip.
WAHLERT: I had spent so much money and so much effort to get to these islands, I was gonna at least do something. And so I staggered around and did a little bit of collecting.
SHAPIRO: Finally, he had to get off the island to receive treatment. But he brought one sample with him. After returning to the United States, he showed it to the world’s expert on this genus of plants.
WAHLERT: And he instantly recognized it as a new species.
SHAPIRO: That fired Wahlert up to go back the next year to collect more samples to describe this new species for science. He cut and dried several of the flowering stalks. Those stalks grow out of large, 40-50 pound underground tubers, so he dug up about a dozen of those as well to distribute to various greenhouses and herbaria, including the one at the University of Utah. It was at a different phase of its life cycle when I was there, so I didn’t see the plant in all its smelly and lurid glory.
What have you decided to name this one?
WAHLERT: We are going to name it after a famous French botanist, and his name was Perrier. So… Amorphophallus perrieri.
SHAPIRO: It turned out that Perrier had already brought a specimen of this plant back to Paris in the 1930s. He just never got around to naming it. Wahlert found the plant when he visited the herbarium in Paris – that’s why he decided to name it after Perrier.
The fact that it took almost 80 years for someone to discover that someone had already discovered this plant shows just how much inventory there is in the tropics to classify and how few people there are who are actually doing the classifying. It should be noted that the main reason this plant was still discoverable in this millennium was that the island of Nosy Ankarea is sacred and undisturbed. But, with cattle grazing and other development, that’s not the case for most of this region.
WAHLERT: The surrounding islands are almost completely cut down, burned down. What little left is going fast. There’s huge places in the tropics that are being destroyed quicker than the plants and animals can be described.
SHAPIRO: And so Gregory Wahlert is on an urgent mission – to find as many plants as he can, and to document, collect, classify…and protect them.
For Living on Earth, I’m Ari Daniel Shapiro.
CURWOOD: Ari's story on Amorphophallus perrieri is part of the series, One Species at a Time, produced by Atlantic Public Media, with support from the Encyclopedia of Life. To see photos of the smelly plants, check out our website LOE dot org.
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