On Science Education and Stinky Plants

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I waited in line for twenty minutes. At this point, the long string of people almost wrapped around the corner of the building. When I finally walk into the Conservatory of Flowers in San Francisco, a blast of humid air envelops me, closely followed by a musty, almost foul smell. I feel a grin stretching across my face as I trace the scent through a tropical plant oasis into the large gallery that holds the perpetrator.

A titan arum plant, popularly known as the “corpse flower” for its stench, awaits in its terra cotta planter home. A long, yellow protrusion–the spadix–rises from the center of an open, frilly base. The spathe, I remind myself, studying the maroon and green folds of the leaf structure before I tune in to a staff member talking to a mass of wide-eyed visitors.

“This corpse flower is almost at peak bloom,” he explains, “and within the next day, it’ll start closing up again. The blooms usually only last a couple days, and it only happens once in seven to ten years.”

I glance at the other titan arum plants scattered around the room. There’s Terra, whose bloom I witnessed last year, and a couple others whose names I haven’t come to know. The one sitting right in front of the quickly-growing crowd is Suma. While Suma’s spadix is exposed and emitting its smelly compounds, Terra and the other titans look more like trees with their complex leaf structures branching off one tall stalk in the center. They’re still in their leaf cycle, and they’ll stay in that cycle for years gathering energy to bloom.

The corpse flower grows in the rainforests of western Sumatra, relying on the tropical environment for water and nutrient uptake. Unfortunately, these rainforest regions along with many others are subject to deforestation– in order to make way for agriculture, trees are chopped and habitats are destroyed.

For a biology student interested in environmental science such as myself, rainforest destruction is an obvious issue. I have been lucky enough to have a direct pipeline to lessons on biodiversity, sustainability, and how they play hand-in-hand. Organizations like the Conservatory of Flowers give not just me, but a plethora of people who may not even have a background in science, a better perspective on what really exists out there in the world.

I spent the summer immersing myself in places that impart science education outside classroom settings. When I visit these places, I read every possible display I can. I grew up spending free time in natural history museums, botanical gardens, and aquariums; I’ve seen coral reefs, ancient fossils, the tallest trees in the world, and more, yet when I return to places I’ve been before, I always learn something new.

However, my close experience with conservation biology is by no means a model for everyone’s, making it all that more important for a wide range of people to be able to witness something like a corpse flower for themselves. We invest so much in the pursuit of research– new discoveries should be made understandable for the world, regardless of whether individuals hold biology degrees or not. Seeing these new discoveries in museums and beyond inspires people to ask questions, explore further on their own terms, and find an individual path to making a difference. Science isn’t just meant for those who spent years in a lab; science is for everyone.

From the tallest trees to the tiniest ferns, I hope plants continue to inspire connection through wonder. Through exposure, education, and accessibility, we can foster a passion to protect the natural world– perhaps starting with the stale-cheese smell of the titan arum.

Arya Natarajan is a student, writer, and marine invertebrate enthusiast from San Francisco, California who loves telling stories and discussing all kinds of music. Currently, she double majors in biology and cognitive science with a focus in design at the University of California, San Diego. Find more of her work at aryanatarajan.com.


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