No new bloom, but Bella has been busy

All winter and spring, Larry Mellichamp and his staff paced UNC Charlotte's greenhouse like expectant parents, keeping a large container of potting soil warm and moist in hopes a bud would poke through the surface.

Then in early July, there it was: The start of an emerald green, splotched leaf from UNCC's rare titan arum. Its stalk had grown 8 feet tall as of last week and branched into squidlike tentacles with smaller leaflets.

Bella was back – or at least her leaf.

You might remember Bella, the plant born in the tropical rainforests of Sumatra, Indonesia, that bloomed a year ago and stunk to high heaven.

More than 4,000 people lined up to see that bloom and catch a whiff of its rotting-flesh aroma. Thus the nickname: the corpse flower.

That was the blockbuster show, the first in the Carolinas.

Now you're invited for the encore – minus the stench – to view what's billed as the world's largest solitary, free-standing leaf. Completely unfurled in about a month, her canopy of leaflets will be roughly the size and shape of a large beach umbrella.

“The leaf is as impressive as … the flower,” said biology professor Bellichamp, director of the campus botanical garden that includes the McMillan Greenhouse.

“It is very pretty and has a very symmetrical, attractive pattern. Everyone who sees it wants to touch it and take one home for their patio.”

Yet UNCC is only the 20th U.S. institution to have cultivated a bloom of the Amorphophallus titanium since it was first discovered in 1878 in Sumatra, where in the wilds its stalk can reach 20 feet tall and its canopy 15 feet across.

UNCC's plant was 3 years old when the botanical garden acquired it from a Raleigh nursery. It was 9 when it bloomed for three days in early July 2007.

After the bud fell off, Mellichamp and his staff gave it a proper burial, dressing up like monks and carrying the carcass into the garden where it was placed on top of a bed of rotting leaves.

“We covered it up and said final words,” Mellichamp said. “It deserved our respect. We don't know when it will bloom again. Bella's very unpredictable.”

Until then, her leaf is the star of the show.

Once it is fully unfurled, the stalk will be 10 feet tall and as thick as a human thigh. The leaflets will form a solid cover “so inviting you'll want to sit under them,” Mellichamp said. It'll live for 1 1/2 years before yellowing and dying in late 2009. After four months of dormancy, storing up energy, Bella will likely send forth another stinky bloom, probably around July 2010.

“People will have plenty of time to see the leaf,” Mellichamp said. “Then, when it falls over one day, we'll lay it on the compost pile, too. There aren't many around – so it, too, will deserve a proper burial.”

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