Chinese New Year is on February 8, and with it begins the year of the monkey. The Aquamarine Fukushima in Japan is celebrating accordingly. In December, they opened an exhibit featuring some unusual orchids known as Dracula simia. The name might conjure images of vampires, but in fact, the rare flowers have markings that make them look like they have tiny monkey faces. The flowers come in an array of different shapes and colors, with some even sporting furry-looking petals.
The orchids come from mountainous regions of Ecuador, Colombia, and Peru, making the plants an exotic treat for Japanese locals. Monkey orchids tend to have a strong smell of ripe oranges, so we can only assume that the room smelled fantastic throughout the exhibit's run, which ended on January 12.
If you haven't heard, the world's bees are having a crisis. According to one recent study, bee populations in some areas have plummeted by 75 percent in a quarter of a century. Some countries have introduced legislation banning certain pesticides in response to the news, but solving the complicated problem will likely require much more research. In order to gather better data on bee behavior, one new media artist has developed a machine that can give scientists a bug's-eye view.
As Co.Design reports, Michael Candy's Synthetic Pollenizer is designed to blend into a bee's natural environment. Yellow circles bolted around the opening of the device imitate the petals on a flower. Tubes pump real nectar and pollen into the center of the fake flower, so when bees land on it to feed, they're collecting real reproductive materials they can spread to the next plant they visit.
Candy, who's based in Brisbane, Australia, originally conceived the apparatus as a way for scientists to track the pollinating behaviors of bees. The synthetic flower is outfitted with cameras and dyes, and with enough of them distributed in the wild, researchers could see which bees travel to certain places and how long they stay.
After his concept reached the final round of the Bio Art and Design awards in the Netherlands, Candy decided to create his own prototype with help from an urban beekeeper in Melbourne, Australia. The invention worked: Bees mistook it for real flora and carried pollen from it to their next destination. But to use it for tracking and studying bees on a larger scale, Candy would need to build a lot more of them. The pollinators would also need to be scattered throughout the bees' natural habitats, and since they would each come equipped with a camera, privacy (for nearby residents, not the bees) could become a concern.
Even if the concept never gets the funding it needs to expand, Candy says it could still be used in smaller applications. Fake flowers designed to look like real orchids, for example, could encourage the pollination of endangered orchid species. But for people studying dwindling bee populations, orchids are low on the list of concerns: 30 percent of all the world's crops are pollinated by bees [PDF].
Big, smelly, rare, phallic—these adjectives all describe Amorphophallus titanum, commonly known as the corpse flower. While native to western Indonesia, the plant is currently taking Washington, D.C. by smelly storm: The last of three—count 'em, three—corpse flowers to bloom this summer began its stinky blossoming this week at the United States Botanic Garden. In honor of the occasion, here's some trivia to celebrate one of nature's stinkiest plants.
1. THE CORPSE FLOWER'S LATIN NAME IS NSFW (OR BRITISH TV).
No, it's not just you: Amorphophallus titanum really does look like a large, lumpy penis. In fact, the plant gets its scientific name from three roots: amorphos (without form), phallos (penis), and titanum (giant).
Can't say the plant's Latin name in polite company without blushing? Thanks to David Attenborough, the English naturalist and TV personality, you can also opt to use its common name, Titan arum. While narrating BBC nature documentary series "The Private Life of Plants," Attenborough thought the corpse flower's proper name was too improper to say on TV, so he coined a less-scandalous moniker. Or, you could simply go with its Indonesian name, bunga bangkai.
2. A 19TH-CENTURY ITALIAN BOTANIST 'DISCOVERED' THE CORPSE FLOWER.
Western scientists first learned of Amorphophallus titanum in 1878, when Italian botanist Odoardo Beccari came across the enormous plant growing in the rainforests of Sumatra, a large island in western Indonesia. The specimen he recorded had a circumference of around 5 feet, and its height was around 10 feet.
Beccari tried to ship the flowering shrub's corms, or giant underground tubers, back to Europe, but French customs ended up holding them under an order designed to prevent the spread of the grapevine pest Phylloxera. Still, a few seeds survived against the odds, and a single seedling was sent to the Kew Botanic Gardens in England, where Beccari had once studied. There, it flowered in 1889. In 1926, when the same corpse flower bloomed again, the crowds were so large that police were brought in to control them.
3. THE CORPSE FLOWER GROSSED OUT THE ENGLISH (IN MORE WAYS THAN ONE).
Not surprisingly, the corpse flower quickly gained notoriety in Europe: An English artist hired to illustrate the plant is said to have become ill from the odor, and governesses forbade young ladies from looking at it, for obvious reasons.
4. A CORPSE FLOWER ISN'T REALLY A SINGLE FLOWER.
Technically, a corpse flower isn't a single flower; it's a flowering plant with clusters of blooms. The plant consists of a thick central spike, known as a spadix, with a base that's encircled by two rings of "male" and "female" flowers. A large, frilly leaf called a spathe envelops these flowers to protect them.
5. CORPSE FLOWERS ARE, AS THEIR LATIN NAME SUGGESTS, ENORMOUS.
Aside from its smell, a corpse flower's most noticeable quality is its sheer size. The plant holds the record for the world's largest unbranched inflorescence (a fancy term for describing a floral structure made of many smaller individual flowers), and it can reach heights of up to 12 feet in the wild. Cultivated corpse flowers are smaller, measuring anywhere from 6 to 8 feet.
Years, or even decades, can pass before a corpse flower reaches peak bloom. As the big moment finally approaches, the plant's bud grows several inches per day before slowing down its growth. Two protective leaves, called bracts, shrivel and fall off the spathe's base. Then, the spathe unfurls over roughly 24 to 36 hours, giving curious onlookers just a small window to see (and smell) its maroon-colored insides for themselves.
7. THERE'S SCIENCE BEHIND THE CORPSE FLOWER'S TERRIBLE SMELL.
When a corpse flower blooms, the spadix heats up to temperatures of up to 98°F as the plant unleashes a stench akin to rotting flesh. "Those pulses of heat cause the air to rise, like a chimney effect," Ray Mims, a spokesperson for the U.S. Botanic Garden, explained to Washingtonian magazine. "It gets the stench up in the air" to attract pollinating dung beetles and carrion beetles, who are drawn to the scent of rotting flesh.
Experts have identified different molecules responsible for titan arum's stink, including dimethyl trisulfide (like limburger cheese), trimethylamine (rotting fish), and isovaleric acid (sweaty socks).
8. CORPSE FLOWERS GROW FRUIT WHEN THEY'RE POLLINATED.
Once a corpse flower finishes blooming, it doesn't die. The spathe withers and collapses after a few days, and if pollinated, the plant soon produces hundreds of small, golden-colored fruits. These berry-like seeds are eaten and dispersed by animals such as birds and the rhinoceros hornbill, or harvested in captivity by garden conservation scientists. (No word on how they taste, as they're reportedly not suitable for human consumption.)
Once the seeds ripen from gold to dark orange, and then to dark red—a stage that lasts for five or six months—the corpse flower goes dormant. Then, it sprouts as a tree-like leaf during its next few life cycles as it stores away energy from the sun. Each cycle, the leaf grows bigger and bigger, before dying. Once the plant's corm is fully replenished, it finally blooms again.
9. THE CORPSE FLOWER WAS ONCE THE BRONX'S OFFICIAL FLOWER.
In 1937, the New York Botanical Garden became the proud home of America's first recorded corpse flower bloom. Two years later, yet another flower bloomed in the Bronx garden. Borough president James J. Lyons was so tickled, he designated Amorphophallus titanum as the Bronx's official flower. ''Its tremendous size shall be symbolic of the fastest-growing borough in the City of New York,'' Lyons said, according to The New York Times. Meanwhile, news crews covering the event are said to have nearly fainted from the smell.
The Bronx used the corpse flower as a symbol until 2000, when then-borough president Fernando Ferrer, aiming to overhaul the municipality's image, changed its official flower to the day lily. "I hate to think of the corpse flower as the Bronx flower, because people would think the Bronx and think, 'The Bronx stinks,'" Michael Ruggiero, then senior curator for horticulture at the New York Botanical Garden, told the Times. "The Bronx is a people place, and the corpse flower is not a people plant. The day lily is, and therefore is a good fit for the Bronx."
10. THE CORPSE FLOWER IS THREATENED BY HABITAT LOSS.
Corpse flowers aren't just rare—they're also vulnerable to habitat loss and destruction, as vast swaths of Sumatra's rainforests are chopped down for timber and to clear ground for oil palm plantations. According to one estimate provided by the Kew Royal Botanic Gardens, Indonesia has now lost around 72 percent of its original rainforest cover. This contributes to the flower's demise, and also threatens important pollinators like the rhinoceros hornbill.