As a kid growing up in Northern New Jersey I was fascinated with biology and the diversity of nature. The idea of plants that catch and devour insects, trees thousands of years old reaching up like sky scrapers, and plants developing an army of vicious spines as defense was irresistible. I read as much as I could find about strange and unusual plants. I distinctly remember seeing an illustration and a description about a plant with a flower as large as a human, one that took ages to reach blooming size, smelled like rotting flesh, and looked like it came from outer space—it all seemed too wild to be true.
The blooming of Amorphophallus titanum has been one of the “holy grails” of botanical garden horticulture since the first plants were coaxed into bloom by gardeners nearly a century ago. First recorded by science in 1878, I can only imagine what botanists thought upon seeing the inflorescence for the first time. Anyone who has seen reports or images of the plant in flower would agree these plants look more like photographic trickery than reality. Often described as a “once in a lifetime event,” it is no wonder that when a plant of the Corpse Flower blooms it creates a sensation, with people flocking to see it with their own eyes.
In the dog days of summer, when many plants are looking tired from the heat and humidity, there is one group of plants that is at its absolute peak of perfection with a non-stop display of color and fragrance in the courtyards of the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory. The Water Lily Pools are dotted with outrageous blooms of intense color and fragrance. From the prehistoric-looking, platter-like leaves of the Victoria cruziana to the vibrant hues of the tropical water lilies, they never fail to put on a spectacular performance.
Sometimes overshadowed by their tropical cousins, the hardy water lilies have a more subtle beauty. Perhaps one of my all-time favorite hardy water lily hybrids is Nymphaea ‘James Brydon’. It has exquisite six-inch, cup-shaped blooms in deep rose that rest just on the surface of the water amongst the dark green foliage.
Walk through the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory and you may come upon a peculiar chandelier of a plant, with a vine spiraling right up to the roof and clusters of flowers dangling from it like upturned flamingo bills. You can’t miss the rings of vibrant, coral-red blooms.