MADISON, WI: The scientific name for the Titan arum plant did not
appear in the first draft of the University of Wisconsin press release
announcing its imminent flowering.
The Latin name Amorpho-phallus titanium translates to "deformed penis"
and Terry Devitt, UW-M's director of research communications, had
thought it best to leave that detail out.
"But I mentioned it to the university chancellor who chuckled and said
to put it in there," Devitt said. So for reminding the world that botany
is really about sex, and for turning a science story into a cash cow,
UW-M has earned a PR Play of the Week.
The plant, native to Indonesia and also known as the "corpse flower,"
blooms only a few times over its 40-year life span, emitting an odor of
rotting meat. It now stands at almost eight feet tall and is due to
flower any day.
The PR team mobilized two weeks ago when it was clear the plant would
bloom. "The goal was to make people aware that this was happening
through the media, and to manage an unpredictable event," Devitt
Botany professors were enlisted to field media calls and a Webcam was
set up to keep fans abreast of its progress. For the first time in six
years, the UW-M Web site crashed due to heavy traffic.
Coverage began in local newspapers and TV stations and has spread this
week to Agence France Presse, AP, The Financial Times and UPI.
T-shirts, posters and postcards were created and have been ringing up
brisk sales to some 5,000 visitors. Money has been coming in droves to
the UW-M foundation, bringing the botany department closer to its goal
of expanding the greenhouse and gardens.
The spokespeople have not shied away from talking about the plant's
erotic qualities. Apparently the plant heats up as it flowers, and its
column shape leaves little to the imagination. "We were wondering if
Pfizer (the makers of Viagra) would be interested in sponsoring it,"
said botany professor Thomas Sharkey.
The ultimate fate of the flower will be familiar to romantics. It only
lasts a few days before collapsing.