When I run into friends, they always ask about Penelope, my plant. Lately, they have been asking why I haven’t said much about her. The last thing you want to ask someone who is passionate about plants is if their favorite plant has moved on to become compost.
In December, Penelope, a Corpse Flower (Amorphophallus titanum) went dormant. Recently, a bud has emerged from her 20+ lbs corm, destined to become a very stinky flower or a very tall leaf.
My husband and I bought Penelope at the Los Angeles Arboretum at a live auction back in 2009. After beating out the last bidder, I took home a small #1 container with her inside. Before leaving, I got some terrific care advice from Living Collections curator, Jim Henrich: “Keep her soil dry during dormancy, but make sure her soil isn’t too soggy, or she will rot. Houseplant food is her favorite.”
Named after the actress Penelope Cruz, we told all of our horticulture friends about our plant on Facebook and Instagram, making mention of her at every given opportunity: at parties, the grocery store line, or work. She became one of the family, and she was easy to care for…until we realized that she would eventually reach 10′ tall and became too heavy to move. We eventually decided to move Penelope outdoors.
Winter came, and our flowering friend went dormant again as expected. She would always turn yellow – looking awful – like we were bad plant parents. We bought a 36″ fiberglass pot at the swap meet, as she had grown to such large proportions, her roots eventually broke through the container. We recently changed the soil within her pot, and her roots have now permanently anchored underneath a Morus alba (Fruitless Mulberry).
Over the years, I thought, there was no way she could survive temperatures under 50 degrees. According to everything I’ve read online, Penelope should be dead. When I went to the Huntington Gardens and Library in San Marino, California and inquired about this peculiarity, the collection curator noted that when they attempted to grow a Corpse Flower outside, their specimen expired.
“You have something special.”
Penelope is special. She is a rare and endangered flowering plant native to Western Sumatra. The Corpse Flower gets its name from the large, smelly inflorescence that it produces, a scent evolved to attract flies that pollinate the plant within a 48 hour bloom cycle. If the timing is just right, the bloom should happen within 10 years. It grows within a rainforest that is slowly disappearing, because development is threatening its limestone bluffs. Yet, here she is, living a much different life across the globe in Southern California.