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July 16, 2005

Every bit as unsubtle, but now with 90 percent less vitriol

Becky and I went to a place where I haven't been in a long time, though I once spent about a couple cumulative weeks a year there. It's the UC Berkeley Botanic Garden, nestled among the live oaks in the upper reaches of Strawberry Canyon in the Berkeley Hills. 23 years ago, my getting to the Bot Garden took just an easy if lengthy hike up from the flatlands of Berkeley. Now it involves driving through the East Bay's worst traffic, parking in a dollar-an-hour lot.

Above the canyon, a row of Monterey Pines lined the top of a ridge. When I was a young man I walked beneath them in thin Chinese shoes, struggling to keep my footing on the steep trail. The trees were noticably taller today.

We went to the botanic garden to see the fabled corpse flower, the five-foot inflorescence of Amorphophallus titanum that attracts pollinating insects - beetles, in this case - by exuding an odor remarkably like that of a decaying dead animal. The beetles fall into the flower, are coated wiith a pollenaceous mucilage whose texture the botanists refer to as "snotty," and then the flower dies and falls over. The beetles crawl out coated with snotty pollen and head for the next smelly flower. The snot pollinates the second flower: the species is maintained.

We were disappointed: it didn't stink.

But we spent a few happy hours walking around, looking at flowers, Becky asking me what they were and me saying I didn't know. The UCB bot garden's labels are oddly placed and often eiither inconsistent or incorrect in some particular or both. It's not at all uncommon to see a prominent shrub in flower, with nothing else nearby, and the only label anywhere around describes a bulb currently dormant. Or the name on the tag was revised by botanists long dead. I identified a few dozen plants to genus, a few of them to species. Column cacti towered thirty feet overhead.

I laid on my back on the ground to better photograph the nodding orange lilies. Pipevine swallowtails flitted in and out of view.

When the fog rolls in next month, I'm going back with a tripod to spend the day.

Posted by Chris Clarke at July 16, 2005 08:20 PM TrackBack URL for this entry:

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decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs


That's a hell of a flower. Like a dragon's mouth, with that tongue of flame. I almost got to see one in bloom once-friends of ours had one ready to bloom in their greenhouse once when we were there for the weekend, but we just missed it. As I recall, they said theirs did stink up their greenhouse impressively, but that was a small enough greenhouse that they were afraid the flower was going to hit the roof.

What is it about botanic gardens and their labels?The Chicago Botanic Gardens is the same way-scarce labels, and when there is one, it says what Allium Giganteum, when all that's in sight is catmint. There's a nice person in the visitor center who's very good at helping you look things up, but you have to be able to describe that plant you saw 45 minutes ago to them well enough that they find the right plant, which isn't always easy.

Posted by: Equinox at July 16, 2005 09:32 PM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs

I walked up the hill on Thursday to see that flower (I used to be a docent at the Bot Garden when I first moved to the Bay Area, back when parking and admission were free; there were times I couldn't have afforded it in those days otherwise).
It was still giving off whiffs on Thursday, but, rather than carrion, as the media blurbs suggested, it struck me as essense of uncleaned Point Reyes Porta Potty. At first I thought they were having restroom problems!

Posted by: lurking liz at July 17, 2005 05:39 AM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs

Pretty cool... but not as cool as a stinkhorn mushroom, I don't think. The latter not only smells like a rotting corpse but has the additional benefit of looking like a large, erect male member. I believe it may even be the source of the extract of vitriole available from the more discriminating herbal supply houses...

Posted by: Dave at July 17, 2005 01:22 PM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs