SAN MARINO, Calif. — Hold your nose and say "cheese."
Stankosaurus Rex has become a big green selfie machine. And that’s exactly how Brandon Tam likes it. The Orchid Master, as he’s known on social media, said he can feel the excitement and energy of the crowds that have been lining up at the conservatory for a peek at — and a whiff of — the record-breaking corpse flower.
“It’s rewarding that people are coming in to learn more about this plant, appreciate this plant and know that this is plant they will not normally see in it’s wild habitat,” he said.
This latest bloom is keeping Tam busy as a bee. He’s got a very small window – figuratively and literally – in which to accomplish a big job. Super big. Like, huge.
“Our last major record was 81 inches,” he said. “This one is 98.5 inches so it’s humongous.”
He’s talking about the King of Stink, the blooming behemoth, the biggest amorphophallus titanium the Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens has ever seen.
And in case you are wondering, yes … size does matter.
“So the bigger it is, the more pungent the odor is,” Tam said.
Stankosaurus Rex, a fitting name for such a gigantic inflorescence, bloomed on Monday night, starting a biological clock that Tam is now racing against. The female flowers are receptive for 24 hours giving him one day to do the work of many pollinators. A live stream on Instagram followed Tam as he carefully placed pollen collected at another conservatory directly onto the female flowers hidden inside the spathe.
In the 25th hour, the male flowers start releasing pollen and Tam begins stage two: collection.
“We actually come in every few hours to collect the pollen that starts to come out of the flower,” he explained, running his fingers along the inside of an incision he’d made the day before.
They emerged covered in a fine yellow dust.
Although each bloom has male and female flowers, they don’t self-pollinate and he tries not to pollinate among the specimen he has in his orchid house. Instead, Tam will share this collected pollen with other institutions around the country in an effort to increase genetic diversity.
With only about 1,000 of these pungent plants left in the wild, he knows the future of the species is in and on his hands.
“We’re doing our best to maximize the conservation we can do for this plant across the world,” he said, “to ensure that if this actually disappears in the wild we have a copy of this in our botanical garden.”
Conservation is one aspect of Tam’s job. Research is another.
“We want to do some sequencing,” he explained. “We want to understand what the lineage is behind each clone that we have of these plants in these gardens.”
And he has a bunch. More than 40, from barely buds to ones in the leaf stage. Standing in the shade of what appears to be a tree, Tam points out that looks can be deceiving.
“This entire structure is one leaf,” he said, holding onto what one might assume is a think green trunk. “It’s not a tree. But one single leaf.”
It’s a real attention getter which is why Rex is the perfect poster plant. Visitors lined up all day Wednesday, patiently waiting in the sun for a chance to snap a selfie with the smelly social media sensation.
Rosa Contreras came all the way from Orange County with her granddaughters.
“Wow, that’s gorgeous,” she said, admiring the plant’s color scheme. “It’s so pretty.”
This was her second trip in less than a week. She came Saturday before it bloomed and rushed back again hoping to see it before it closed up again. For her, this is more than a hashtag. Gardening is her happy place.
“Growing something you can eat, that you can look at, that you can breathe in,” she said, “to me it’s just fascinating.”
Tam shares that fascinating. Gardening is his happy place, too, ever since he was 7 and grew his first orchid. It’s a passion he’s cultivated into a career as the Huntington’s orchids collection specialist.
“And I think that’s truly something of an American dream,” he said, “doing something that you really love and enjoy doing.”
As he looks over the vine-like line waiting to enter the conservatory, he hopes these visitors walk away with more than just a passing curiosity.
“There are many plants out there that are just not as sexy, they’re not as stinky, they’re not as large but that need saving as well,” he explained.
He’s certainly amused by the social media celebrity he’s gained along this journey, seeds he’ll continue to cultivate, tending to what he hopes becomes a budding interest in our planet’s botanical wellbeing.