Foul-smelling 'corpse flower' can live on

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The most malodorous flower in the world, it smells like death. And now scientists have discovered a way for it to propagate all by itself.

The most malodorous flower in the world, it smells like death. And now scientists have discovered a way for it to propagate all by itself.

That would seem to be bad news all round, but researchers at the Huntington Botanical Gardens, southern California, are besides themselves with glee. For the Amorphophallus titanum or titan arum is both a botanical rarity and, despite its nickname of the "corpse flower", a sure-fire hit with the public. When the spiky flowers of the giant bloomed last August, not only did thousands of people rush to see it and breathe in its foul aroma - much as they did in Britain when a titan arum flowered at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, west London, in 1996 - it also allowed researchers indulge in a little artificial insemination.

John Trager, curator of the Huntington's desert collection and a specialist in "handpollination", came up with an ingenious method to overcome the fact that the plant's male and female parts mature at different times. To hasten the production of male pollen, he removed pollen-producing anthers and kept them, next to a bag of rotting apples. The ethylene from the apples stimulated the pollen, which he then applied to the female flowers.

At first, the new fruit showed little sign of developing. "Then, a few weeks ago, some of the fruits started to swell beyond size of the others - first orange, then bright red," Dr Trager reported.

Huntington is hailing this as a breakthrough, and a way of guaranteeing the survival of the titan arum outside its native habitat in Sumatra. But experts at Kew are not so sure. "The whole reason the flower spikes mature at different times is to avoid self-pollination because plants don't want to inbreed," said Peter Boyce, of the Kew herbarium.

He suggested self-pollination was a waste of time and that the real trick was to have one plant pollinate another. Kew, he pointed out, had managed that with the help of pollen collected from a titan arum in Bonn. Huntington's experiment, he added, had garnered only a half-dozen viable pollen seeds, while experts in Bonn had produced hundreds.

Does something stink at Huntington besides the corpse flower? "We'd like to foster cooperation rather than competition," Dr Trager insisted. But the plant kingdom, it seems, is a surprisingly treacherous place.

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