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A NOSE FOR UNUSUAL PLANTS; SOME SMELL FUNNY, WHILE OTHERS ARE JUST PLAIN STRANGE.

Byline: Carol Bidwell Staff Writer

Forget all those ``truths'' you learned about plants - the ones that say all flowers smell good, all healthy plants are green, all flowers attract bees, or even that all plants look like plants.

Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong.

The wilting Amorphophallus titanum - the rotting-smell ``corpse flower'' that has drawn more than 50,000 visitors to the Huntington Botanical Gardens in the past week - has disproved all those myths.

The rare plant that's slowly beginning to bow its head will continue to be on display through Sunday, before it's returned to the grounds' greenhouse for rest, recuperation and a chance to yield seeds for future propagation, said Lisa Blackburn, spokeswoman for the Huntington.

But while this botanical treasure is rare, it's not unique in the realm of the bizarre. There are many little-known plants - some available to home gardeners, some that can be seen only in botanical gardens - that are just as strange.

Flowers that look like rocks, for instance. Or an orchid that grows entirely underground, except for one long, above-ground shoot carrying a gorgeous bloom. And a tree whose trunk looks just like an elephant's sturdy, wrinkled foot.

If the garden is a carnival, these plants are the freak show.

``They highlight the creative power of God,'' said David Losgren, ornamental horticulturist at the Arboretum of Los Angeles County in Arcadia. ``It's just amazing the things that exist in nature.''

Most of the plants that don't fit the backyard mold for roses and geraniums are the result of centuries of adaptation to too much or not enough moisture, nutrients or light, say botanists. Others bloom only when there's a pollinating medium available, or after they've saved up scanty stores of nutrients to send a blossom forth.

``Grow where you're planted'' is a maxim many bizarre plants have taken to heart, and they do what they can with what they're given.

Like Marguerite Shadle's night-blooming epiphyllum, for instance. Most people can't wait for the sun to come out so they can enjoy their flower garden. But the Burbank woman can put on her jammies and brush her teeth while waiting for her peculiar posy to burst into bloom.

The plant, inherited from her mother-in-law about five years ago, is a scraggly-looking thing, with each spindly stalk tipped by an egg-shaped bud. About 8:30 p.m. once or twice a year, depending on the weather, the native of Panama's rain forests will begin to open its blossoms.

By 10 p.m., it's in full bloom, each of the dozen blossoms nearly 6 inches across, creamy white flowers tinged with a touch of pink.

``It's a gorgeous flower, but it only lasts until the next morning,'' Shadle said. She and husband John and a few neighbors watched Monday and Tuesday night as first one-half of the plant slowly burst into bloom, then the other half. By 6 a.m. the next day, the formerly beautiful blooms were wilting and an hour later were spent and hanging limp.

There's no mystery why the epiphyllum blooms only at night, said Frank McDonough, the arboretum's botanical information consultant. The blossoms open after the sun goes down because they're pollinated either by night-roaming insects or by bats, which are nocturnal.

``When you understand that, it makes perfect sense,'' he said.

It's the same sort of logic behind the stench that rises from the delicate bell-shaped, peach-colored flowers on a prickly succulent called Hoodia gordonii, said Duke Benadom of Simi Valley, a self-taught expert on the growth of strange succulents.

The plants, which are native to a narrow region of southern Africa's republic of Namibia, on the edge of the Kalahari Desert, are pollinated by flies - and flies regard the sickening smell given off by the blossoms much as a hungry teen-ager would the aroma of Big Macs while sitting in the drive-through lane.

``The flowers smell like dead animal flesh, but the flies love it,'' said Benadom, who has three of the stinky plants growing in his home greenhouse, one purchased from an Ojai nursery and the other two rooted from cuttings from that host plant. He estimates that he's propagated thousands of Hoodia gordonii - with the help of a lot of flies - and donated many of them to the Huntington Gardens.

``I think anybody who likes plants in general is willing to put up with those that don't smell so good,'' he said.

The county arboretum, with species of plants both from dry regions like Africa and Australia and from the rain forests of the tropics, has some of the strangest plants most people will ever see.

There's one tree, for instance, that appears to bleed real blood. The Canary Islands native Dracaena draco (also called the dragon's blood tree) actually leaks a deep red resin, which centuries ago was used to staunch medieval knights' wounds. And when added to a love potion, the tree's sap was rumored to lure back unfaithful lovers, said McDonough. The resin was also an ingredient in the varnish used by violin maker Stradivarius in the 18th century.

Another arboretum tree makes Losgren hungry whenever he sees it: It appears to be growing long, fat sausages.

Kigelia africana - botanists actually call it the sausage tree - sprouts hard seed pods 12 to 16 inches long that look and feel like salamis and overgrown bratwursts. But that's where the similarity to lunch ends; inside the fruit are hard, inedible seed pods. But ingenious Africans figured out a way to make beer from the seeds of the native tree and scientists today are studying the tree for possible cancer-fighting properties.

The arboretum is also home to a hillside full of so-called century plants. The misnamed agave, succulents native to Mexico and Central America, resemble a Southwest desert Joshua tree that sends up a spike of spectacular flowers at infrequent intervals in the spring.

How often the plant blossoms, M`cDonough said, depends on how long it takes for it to collect enough nutrients from the dry, rocky, sandy soil where it grows to form a blossom. Small century plants may bloom every six to eight years; large ones, which can grow 15 to 18 feet tall, need more nutrients and may send up a flower spike only every 30 to 40 years.

``You should see them when they bloom,'' McDonough said. ``They're absolutely spectacular. I don't know how it got the name `century plant,' though. I think it got its name from the long period of time between blooms, but it's not a century.''

The tiniest plant in the arboretum - and the smallest plant in the world, Losgren says - is best viewed through a magnifying glass.

Duckweed, a native to Europe and North America, has only two leaves, each one-eighth inch wide, with roots one-eighth inch long. The tiny plants float on mostly stagnant water, providing food for ducks and other waterfowl. There are both male and female plants, and somehow, by the movements of the wind or the waterfowl, the female plant is pollinated and produces a seed, which sinks to the bottom of the pond or lake.

In the spring, the seed floats back to the surface, where it germinates and produces a new plant.

Which just shows, Losgren concludes, that plants don't always have to look like roses or petunias and can live happily in environments very different from our home gardens.

``There are very few places in the world where plants don't grow - only the North and South poles,'' he said. ``Plants have adapted to grow where they are, and they've changed over the years. As a result, there's some pretty weird plants out there.''

How to begin your search for unusual plants

Strange plants are usually hard to find at local nurseries, although many sell small Venus's-flytraps (Dionaea muscipula), those once-popular plants that trap and digests insects within their leaves.

The best place to find unusual plants is at local plant sales, especially those of organization`s dedicated to cactus and succulents.

But they are also available by mail order at exotic and rare plant nurseries. Here are a few resources to explore if you're considering adding some strange and unusual plants to your collection:

Ho-Ti Nursery, P.O. Box 847, Kailua-Kona, Hawaii 96745, can be reached on the Web at www.ho-tinursery.com. Specializes in rare tropical plants, especially those from the Amazon region of South America.

Trans-Pacific Nursery, 16065 Oldsville Road, McMinnville, Ore. 97128; (503) 472-6215; on the Web at www.worldplants.com. Collects plants from tropical, temperate, alpine, desert and aquatic habitats around the world, including the South Pacific, Mount Kilimanjaro in Kenya and the Himalayas in Tibet.

A new book, ``The Strangest Plants in the World'' by S., D., and J. Talalaj (Hill of Content Publishing Co.; $20.95) is a good source of information about strange and exotic plants.

Some of the strangest: the viper's gourd (Trichosanthes anguina), a native to China that looks at first like a mass of writhing snakes but turns out to be long, snaky gourds; monk's hood (Aconitum napellus), an English herbaceous plant so poisonous early warriors used to smear its juices on their spears and arrows to kill an enemy; and Durio zibethinus, a prickly fruit that looks like a hedgehog, filled with a cheesy white edible inside that's considered a delicacy by those who can tolerate its smell, described as being like ``French custard passed through a sewer pipe.''

- Carol Bidwell

CAPTION(S):

7 Photos, Box

Photo: (1--Cover--Color) On the cover: The night-blooming epiphyllum flowers only once or twice a year, producing blossoms up to 6 inches in diameter.

(2--Color) At right, Marguerite Shadle invited friends to her Burbank home to see her night-blooming epiphyllum, which flowered only Monday and Tuesday nights.

Hans Gutknecht/Staff Photographer

(3--Color) Hoodia gordonii, a succulent at Duke Benadom's Simi Valley home, is pollinated by flies attracted to the sickening smell of its blossoms.

Phil McCarten/Staff Photographer

(4--Color) The sausage tree (Kigelia africana) at the Arboretum of Los Angeles County forms seed pods in a familiar shape.

(5--Color) The arboretum's Dracaena draco - also called the dragon's blood tree - actually leaks a deep red resin.

(6--Color) The agave, native to Mexico and Central America, is known as the century plant.

(7--Color) The elephant foot palm (Nolina recurvata), above, native to southeast Mexico, stands its ground at the county arboretum and grows well in the San Fernando Valley.

Gus Ruelas/Staff Photographer

Box: How to begin your search for unusual plants (See text)
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Title Annotation:L.A. LIFE
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Aug 7, 1999
Words:1746
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