A pregnant pause as titan fails to bloom

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In a scene reminiscent of the maternity ward of a busy hospital, a crowd of tourists, botanists and journalists paced up and down with worried expressions. The largest flower on earth, graced with one of the most nauseating smells on earth, was due to open at Kew Gardens for the first time in 33 years yesterday.

But as the tension mounted in the already sweltering heat of the Princess of Wales conservatory, the titan arum (Amorphophallus titanum) remained steadfastly shut.

Anxious onlookers pressed a harassed-looking botanist for information, only to turn away despondently when told "later, later". Outside, a television journalist paced up and down like an expectant father, smoking a cigar and mopping his brow.

Those who are lucky enough to witness the happy event will need strong stomachs. The smell has been described as a mixture of rotting fish and burnt sugar. The locals in its native Sumatra called titan arum the "corpse flower".

Smell or no smell, still the faithful waited. The excitement in 1926, when Kew's first specimen flowered for only the second time (the first was in 1889) was so great that police had were called to control the crowds. Each titan arum tuber has a lifespan of 20 years, but, even in the wild, will flower only once every three or four years.

Peter Boyce, one of two botanists working on the Swiss cheese plant family to which titan belongs, said: "The flower is so big that it takes all the plant's energy to produce it. Once it has done so, it needs a few years' rest before it can do it again."

Sadly, by late afternoon, it was apparent that titan arum intended to keep her fans waiting just a little bit longer. Many were determined to return today, when, Mr Boyce promised, their patience would be rewarded. "Well hopefully anyway."