The World's Tallest Flower

Trip Start Jun 02, 2007
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Saturday, June 16, 2007

True to itself as a land of extremes, Sumatra is home to both the world's largest flower, and its tallest.
 
Brettany and I had planned to see the world's largest flower, the Rafflesia arnoldi, a massive bloom with no leaves or stem that attaches itself as a parasite to certain type of vine. Red with yellow-speckled petals, the flower can grow up to three feet wide, and emits the stench of a rotting carcass that attract flies to pollinate it.
 
We were disappointed to learn, though, that the rafflesia blooms mainly in southwestern Sumatra, and not until August or September, so we were out of luck.
 
But the ever-enterprising Felix found the next best thing-the world's tallest flower, the Amorphophallus titania. Also known as Titan's Sceptre, it resembles a massive cock of whale-like proportions. Needless to say, we couldn't wait to see it, so off we went, piled atop a bus to the nearby town of Bohorok, almost flattening a chicken on the way.
 
The flower was growing at the house of one of Felix's friends. Past a tiny, chittering monkey leashed to what looked like a birdhouse, the monsterous blossom was in full erection in a shady corner of the backyard. It stood over five feet tall (they can grow to about nine), protruding from a frilly red skirt and bulbous, green base.
 
We gathered around it to have a sniff and our photos taken. Like the rafflesia, the amorphophallus emits a rotting, ammonia-like stench, but it wasn't as strong as I'd expected-I had to place my nose quite near it, where miniscule flies gathered to feast on its yellow, wrinkled skin, to get a whiff. 

 

The man who owned the flower showed us the bulb of another one, which looked like a bulb of garlic the size of a soccer ball, as well as other massive flowers in his garden. Sumatrans are a planty people, their gardens overflowing with blooms of every imaginable size and colour, as well as the tropical plants I'd become so familiar with as a landscaper, growing as massive trees or spilling out of countless plastic pots. Everywhere trees are dripping with avocadoes, papayas, coconuts, bananas, rambutans and other mysterious fruits.
 
Yet amid all this beauty lie piles of rotting lumber and slag heaps of burning, stinking garbage tended to by housewives. There is no garbage collection here, so people must burn their own-everyone has their own slag pile, usually in front of the house, with chickens scratching around it for morsels of food. Among the refuse are potato chip bags and candy wrappers, poisonous gifts from our Western way of life that litter the streets and, when burned, fill the air with acrid smoke. It makes the smell of the amorphopallus pleasant in comparison. 
 
Once again, when you scratch beneath the surface of this paradise, its dark side will show through. Yet it's also what makes Sumatra such a fascinating place to discover.
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