Image: Titan Arum
Michael Rothbart  /  UW-Madison
This photo shows the titan arum flower at its peak in 2001 in a greenhouse at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Now botanists say the same plant is getting ready to bloom again.
updated 6/2/2005 9:52:18 PM ET 2005-06-03T01:52:18

Big Bucky's back. The rare, big and extremely stinky flower that caused a sensation at the University of Wisconsin-Madison when it last bloomed in 2001 could become the world's largest flower when it blooms again next week.

The titan arum stood at 6 feet, 4 inches Thursday in a UW-Madison greenhouse, on pace to rival the world record for cultivated flowers when it blooms and releases its trademark roadkill scent in the coming days.

Botanists hope it will surpass the record of nearly 9 feet set by a titan arum in Germany two years ago.

The university is bracing for thousands of curious visitors hoping to catch a glimpse and even a whiff of the rock star of the botanical world, known as the "corpse flower," native to the rain forests of Sumatra, Indonesia.

On Thursday, computer technicians were figuring how to run a Webcam broadcasting the flower's progress, botanists were recruiting volunteers to staff the greenhouse for extended hours and the curious were getting an early sneak peak.

In 2001, Big Bucky's bloom drew some 20,000 visitors who waited in long lines to see the spectacle and caused the university's Web site to crash under an onslaught of visitors seeking live updates. Botanists were disappointed when the bloom fell just three inches short of the world record, which at the time had held since 1932.

The episode, which raised $50,000 for the school in sales of shirts and other memorabilia, showed the university its botany department can generate some buzz. Other schools — from Connecticut to California — have followed suit by successfully cultivating the flowers in recent years.

"We didn't know how people were so into a stinky plant, a monster, a beast," said Mohammad Fayyaz, director of UW-Madison's Botany Garden and Greenhouses.

Botanists call the titan arum the "world's largest flower," but it really is an inflorescence, or collection of thousands of flowers. The titan arum are supposed to be rare and hard to cultivate, although researchers at UW-Madison have had four blooms on such flowers in the last five years.

The flowers bloom only about three or four times in their 40-year lives, when they slowly unfurl their green and purple spathe and release the stench, botanists say. This is the second bloom for 12-year-old Big Bucky.

The stench often is compared to road kill or rotting meat, and some visitors bring gas masks for protection. Fayyaz describes it as smelling "like a dead deer by the road that has been there for a few days" but says it's sweet to the beetles and flies that it attracts for pollination.

The key to the flower's quick growth is keeping it in the 80-degree climate in the greenhouse, with the right amount of moisture, Fayyaz said. He allowed himself to muse about how he would feel if his plant beat the record.

"If we break the record," he said, "it's great for the country, the state and the city of Madison."

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