It was a glorious day at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden in Coral Gables, one that botanists and plant lovers had waited years to see. Mr. Stinky, one of the world's weirdest plants, had just bloomed, growing a stalk of flowers nearly five feet tall and releasing the odor of rotting flesh. In the jungles of Sumatra, where the titan arum, or Amorphophallus titanum, grows wild, the smell attracts corpse-loving carrion beetles, which then transport pollen to create a new titan.
Mr. Stinky's big moment at Fairchild came in 1998. Though many titans die after a single flowering period, Mr. Stinky bloomed again in 2003. Audrey III, a Mr. Stinky descendant, also bloomed twice, in 2003 and 2006. Alice, another descendant, bloomed in 2005. All have died, but a new descendant, not yet named, is growing in a preparation garden a mile from the main attraction.
It will be brought to the conservatory next year and will produce its single leaf – they can grow to more than 12 feet tall – but it's not expected to bloom for perhaps years.
No worry. Fairchild has plenty to delight Carl Lewis, director of the 83-acre garden, and the thousands who visit the park every year.
Named after horticulturist David Fairchild, who introduced mangos, pistachios and nectarines to the United States, Fairchild Garden opened in 1938 to study and preserve tropical plants. William Lyman Phillips, from the same firm as New York City Central Park designer Frederick Law Olmsted, mapped out the lush grounds. Visitors stroll walkways or take trams, where guides explain the beautiful and bizarre flora they see, such as the eucalyptus tree with rainbow-colored bark and a palm with actual branches.
In the conservatory itself, where fragile plants from around the world grow, Lewis watches the durian tree with anticipation. He wants it to sprout the fruit that is both loved and banned in Malaysia. It tastes like taffy, Lewis notes, but some say it smells like gym socks.
"If you hold your breath, you're fine," Lewis says. "You can go to hotels and office buildings in Singapore, and they'll have a sign on the door with a picture of a durian and a cross through it – no durians permitted in this building."
In a garden outside the conservatory building, a tree bears yellow, bumpy fruit, some the size of basketballs. Jackfruit is the largest tree-borne fruit in the world, and Lewis and his team are trying to grow it smaller to make it less cumbersome and more marketable to grocery store shoppers. The fruit tastes sweet, he says, like honey.
Out on the grounds – and around Miami – the sausage tree (Kigelia africana) has fruited. The fruit is eaten by baboons and other animals, but it is too seedy and fibrous for humans. In the wild, bats nuzzle their heads in the night-blooming flowers and carry pollen to others.
The Victoria lilies, which can grow more than three yards in diameter, look like floating dinner trays in a Fairchild pond. They were all the rage in Victorian England.
"The flower emerges white, then it closes, then it reopens red," Lewis says. "In the process, it traps beetles inside, which pick up the pollen. It releases them, and they go on to the next flower."
Lewis, 39, has the enviable job of traveling the world, like Fairchild once did, looking for new plants to bring back to study and try to grow. One he would love to have is the Rafflesia arnoldii, the largest flower in the world.
He sits at his computer at Fairchild and admires the plant, which lives its entire life underground – until a red and yellow flower several feet in diameter emerges rather quickly. A botanical garden in Indonesia has successfully grown one. "But there's still lot of work in Indonesia to figure out exactly how to do it," Lewis says.
Meanwhile, other projects command his attention. In the next few months, Fairchild expects to open a new lab that can accommodate 20 graduate students. Nearby, Fairchild's horticultural gurus will grow millions of orchids by germinating the tiny seeds in a lab. Lewis wants to put the orchids in trees throughout the Miami area to recreate what South Florida looked like 200 years ago.
Visitors can watch the work through windows and ask the experts questions through microphones several times a day. They'll be able to do the same at the butterfly nursery (opening in December), where workers will raise thousands of the colorful flutterers for the screen-enclosed garden.
"We're having so much fun at this place," Lewis says. "Every time I walk out in the garden, I see something that I hadn't seen before. A plant that hadn't bloomed, that's now blooming. It's just great."
If You Go
Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, 10901 Old Cutler Road in Coral Gables, is open 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday and 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Admission is $25 for adults, $18 for seniors and $12 for children 6 to 17. Fairchild members and children 5 and under are free. For more information, call 305-667-1651 or visit fairchildgarden.org.
To read about Coral Gables' Venetian Pool, a tropical paradise of a different variety, click here.