Back in the summer of 2015, I was working for Chicagoist and in covering arts and culture there, had gotten myself unofficially on museums and park duty (no surprise there, I’m sure.) At the time, all eyes were on the Chicago Botanic Garden to see Spike, a rare Sumatran exotic amorphophallus titanum, come to life with a deathly stench and impressive large bloom. What you have to remember, since corpse flowers seem to be blooming in bouquets over in the Glencoe gardens, is that this was the very first one the Chicago Botanic Garden was ever going to have bloom. Every single media outlet in Chicago had their eyes on the very first corpse flower livecam, and plans were made for if the flower bloomed in the middle of the night. It felt like we were waiting for a big, stinky, famous baby to arrive. We watched as plant got bigger and bigger…and then, nothing.
Spike, it was discovered, lacked the energy to bloom. It seemed like a blow to the Botanic Gardens, and certainly disappointed people hoping to see and smell this rare and unusual specimen. But in fact, in going to the garden and talking with Tim Pollak, who the garden has dubbed “Titan Tim,” it turned out Spike’s failure to launch was a boon to the garden for science. The morning after it was determined there’d be no bloom, Tim and his team removed the flower’s spathe (a purple modified leaf that unfurls when the plant is in bloom) and left it on display for visitors, as well as opening up the flower for pollination, which allowed visitors to see the male and female flower structures inside. The pollen and knowledge collected when Spike didn’t bloom in fact set the garden up for several more successful blooms. As it often goes in scientific pursuits, more is learned in “failure” than in success, and future corpse flowers like Alice, Java, Sumatra and Sunshine reaped the benefits of what the Chicago Botanic Garden learned with Spike.
But that’s not the end of this tale of giant, fragrant flowers, as Spike unexpectedly began to show signs of blooming not too long ago. It was especially unexpected because it typically takes titan arums well over the 2.5 years Spike had to recover and gather the energy for another towering bloom. I, and many other corpse flower fanatics, watched as Spike soared to 7 feet this time, becoming the tallest such plant in the garden’s history, and anxiously kept my eyes on the webcam, hoping Spike would be able to fully bloom considering his significantly smaller rest time. And bloom Spike did. In the early hours, as is common for these plants, Spike proved potent, and the fetid, awful stench fans were waiting for began emanating from its depths.
You can check out Spike’s big comeback at the garden for the next 12 hours, and if you’ve never had the unique pleasure of seeing these giant exotic plants we recommend you put it on your agenda. Spike was everything we hoped for the whole time–it just took a little longer to get there. The Chicago Botanic Garden is located at 1000 Lake Cook Rd in Glencoe, IL. You can find out more about Spike, in both its past and present forms, on the Chicago Botanic Garden’s website, and arrange to buy parking at the gardens to check it out here.