This map project (for the corpse flower bloom event) has fertilized my love of greenhouses and my admiration for the people who make them blossom.
Greenhouses remind me of libraries – and I adore libraries. If you’ve read Susan Orlean’s The Library Book, you understand that a library is like a wise, old, introverted friend. Not a know-it-all braggart, out to prove something. But someone who willingly helps answer any question you have, as long as you ask and take the time to listen to the answer.
Greenhouses also hold and conserve vast amounts of knowledge. They’re quiet, helpful, and friendly – like the people who work there. There’s even a couple of books about them, though not nearly as popular as The Library Book.
In 1980, an expert in greenhouse history (van den Muijzenberg) estimated that greenhouses enclosed 75,000 acres (~30,000 hectares). A quarter of those greenhouses stood in the Netherlands. The earliest documented “greenhouse” used oiled cloth, rather than glass, to keep cucumber plants growing year-round in Rome.
For over a year, my drawing has been sidelined by a misbehaving carpel tunnel. But I’m picking up a pen again for a fun little project (on a deadline set by a plant).
Lupin, the corpse flower at NC State, is growing another flower set to bloom about a week from now. The amazing greenhouse staff is preparing to host thousands of visitors who want to experience the olfactory disgust. I’m helping with outreach – stickers and coloring pages for younger visitors, and a map of the greenhouses to show off all the other non-corpse plants.
I’ve just finished this first small section of the map, the Sedum bed, and I am LOVING this. Since my hand needs a break, I thought I’d share the (very slow and laborious) process.
Sedum, or stonecrops, are succulants with thick, water-storing leaves. The ones in my yard are easily identified by adorable beak-bites taken out of them. Entire families of house finches settle onto the Sedum and clip mouthfuls of leaf, presumably for the water. I tried to research this behavior in the scientific literature to no avail. I found one lonely reference to an Oriole Finch in Tanzania eating Sedum leaves. That’s it. The behavior must be common since online message boards are full of complaints and advice on keeping the birds away from beloved Sedum in yards.
Seems like a great citizen-science opportunity to me!
It’s rare to see a corpse flower bloom. If you ever have the opportunity, take it… especially if you get to visit Sumatra. Lucky for me, a corpse flower (Amorphophallus titanium) blossomed in the greenhouse next to my office last weekend at NC State University (https://cals.ncsu.edu/corpse-flower-at-nc-state/).
It took the corpse flower, dubbed Lupin, 13 years to save up enough energy to bloom. It’ll probably be another five years before it does so again. So corpse flowers are rather special. Actually, fewer than 200 cultivars have been recorded since 1889. But now’s your opportunity. For some yet unknown reason, a bunch are flowering at once (1).
Lupin grew six feet tall in under two months! That tall, purple-grey phallic structure is called a spadix. At its base are about 700 vibrant orange and purple female flowers and thousands of male flowers (2). When the one giant petal (actually a bract known as a spathe) opens, the spadix releases a stench to attract carrion beetles and flies who pollinate all those female flowers.
So actually, the corpse flower isn’t a flower at all. It’s over a thousand flowers wrapped into one giant, stinky, gorgeous inflorescence.