Podcast: Trudy’s bloom raises a stink

We’re at the UC Botanical Garden in Berkeley. A long line curves through the gardens, and a small group huddles in a steamy greenhouse, all here to get a whiff of Trudy.

Garden director Paul Licht stands at the front, talking to one of the many groups to visit during the latest Trudy mania. “It goes in waves, doesn’t it?” he asks. “None have ever smelled as much the day after it opened.”

Trudy is a tropical plant called a Titan Arum, known best for the putrid odor it emits when it blooms.

“It’s very difficult to describe the smell,” says Licht. “I’ve been saying for years that it smells like a large, dead mammal. A rat or a dog or a cow. Other people say it smells like dead fish. I think it smells like a Titan Arum. That’s all I can tell you.”

Titan Arums bloom every few years and stay open for only a day or two, so when they do make an appearance, it has to count. Trudy’s bloom began late Saturday.

“It’s all about getting it done in one day,” Licht says. “Attracting insects that bring pollen to you and take your pollen to someone else.”

The foul stench instantly attracts a mass of insects to pollinate the flower. If it doesn’t get pollinated in that short window of time, it dies. Licht says it’s all about reproduction.

“That’s what life’s about. Whatever you think is important, nothing is more important in evolution than just making more of yourself.”

Trudy is awesome looking, too. This year, her bloom is about 4 and a half feet tall and kind of looks like a huge, upside down lamp with a deep purple, ornate ruffle shade.

“It’s the most beautiful looking, best smelling woman in the forest,” Licht says. “If you’re boyfriend’s a beetle or a fly.” 

Trudy bloom

Trudy the Titan in bloom (UC Berkeley photo by Avi Martin)

Because Titan Arums are so big — the largest recorded flower is 14 feet tall — it takes a lot of energy every time they bloom, which is why they only bloom every few years for a short time. They can lose 20 percent of their weight just blooming.  

“It’s much worse than giving birth to a 15-pound baby,” Licht tells the crowd. “It has to rebuild itself. It’s going to make a big leaf like this to grow again, and then it can bloom a second time.”

Titan Arums come from Sumatra and there’s still a lot we don’t know about them.

“Sadly, we don’t have very much information on these from the habitat of Sumatra,” he says. “We don’t know how many are left. We don’t know how long they live. We don’t know how old they have to be before they bloom. We don’t know how often they bloom. We don’t know what time of year they bloom.”

In fact, he says that he’s never correctly predicted when one will bloom. He can get close, but never right on. It’s always a surprise.  

Read more about Trudy’s magnificent stink on Berkeley News and on the Botanical Garden website, which includes information about the garden’s schedule.

Visitors on Sunday numbered just over 2,300, as many as typically venture into the garden in a month. For newcomers looking for a glimpse of Trudy, a campus shuttle runs every 30 minutes between the parking lot of the Lawrence Hall of Science at the top of Strawberry Canyon, and the garden below.