musings from Canadian author Cheryl Cooke Harrington ... home of The Write Spot

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

little house of horrors...

Last month on one of my afternoon rambles I ventured into the conservatory at Centennial Park in Etobicoke. It's one of my favourite Toronto destinations, especially on gloomy days when I can imagine myself lost in some lush, tropical jungle complete with towering palms, exotic birds, and colourful fish.

The glasshouse has three distinct sections. In the central and largest room live the tropical palms and pomegranates, banana trees, orchids, hibiscus, and myriad other visitors from warmer climes, including Angel, the resident Australian Cockatoo.

Palms and Tropicals

Goldfish in the Pond

Phalaenopsis Orchids

Angel the Cockatoo - Official Greeter

To the north, is an ever-changing garden room where visitors are treated to whimsical displays celebrating the changing seasons.

Easter Egg Tree

Spring Blooms

Christmas Pageant

The southern house is home to a glorious desert habitat, teeming with other-worldly silhouettes; strange beings armed with threatening spines and thorns. Unexpected blooms surprise and delight – everything from tiny, perfect petals on prickly Euphorbia splendens, to flashy spikes of crimson and yellow on the giant Aloe vera.

A Prickly Situation

Euphorbia splendens (Crown of Thorns)

Aloe vera in bloom

But on that cloudy August afternoon, I encountered something very peculiar indeed among the cacti and succulents… a tangle of lumps and bumps spreading tentacle-like, stretching ever closer to the door as if plotting escape. And from the tip of one of those tentacles sprouted two long, smooth stalks with massive flower buds – so heavy they couldn't stand erect. I swear they seemed to grow even larger while I stared in fascination. I even began to imagine they were staring right back at me like Audrey II, that infamous person-eater in Little Shop of Horrors. Could this little monster be Audrey III?

Is it just me, or can you imagine those puckery lines as a mouth?

I'm almost certain I saw the largest bloom shudder ever so slightly as I inched closer to aim my camera. It seemed to swell, like a pale, fleshy balloon. (It couldn't be breathing, could it?) Thankfully, Audrey didn't object to being photographed and I escaped unscathed into the tropical house where I tried but failed to find someone who might answer my questions about the sinister plant. My imagination took over. What if, just like the hapless victims in Little Shop, the missing greenhouse staff had all been devoured by the very thing consigned to their care?

Safely home, I searched the web for some hint of what the creepy creeping cactus might be. No luck. I would have to go back. And so, armed with my camera (to document potential horrors), and wearing running shoes (just in case), I returned the next morning to investigate.

The doors to the hothouse were closed when I arrived. I peered through the window. No sign of human life. When I eased the door open and stepped through, I found Audrey III still lounging on her brick wall.

She looked almost regal, I thought, but quite a lot puffier than she'd been the day before. That's when I noticed another of her kind peeking out from behind a rock. Closer inspection revealed another… and another. Audrey had a posse. I backed slowly away.

Rounding a corner in the tropical house I happened upon a lanky man in dusty blue overalls, grooming the Phalaenopsis. I was in luck. I'd found one of the conservatory's horticulturalists. He brushed wisps of fine, sandy hair away from his face as he stooped to peer at Audrey III's image on my camera display. 

"Ah!" he said, in a softly accented voice. "Stapelia. He sounded it out, "Sta-pee-lee-ahh. Come, I tell you." And he led me back to the hothouse to examine Audrey again. 

"You come tomorrow," he said, pointing at the largest of Audrey's flower buds. "This bloom will open. See how it…" He paused to think and made an extravagant gesture with both hands. "It looks inflated, yes? And here" he pointed at the lines I'd imagined as Audrey's mouth, "see how she starts to darken and pucker? You come again tomorrow."

Not only a mouth. Now Audrey III seems to be forming eyes!

When I thanked him for his time, the man pinched his nose and grinned. "It will be kind of… stinky."

Suddenly, the light dawned. Audrey III might not be a person-eater, but there was definitely something uniquely horrible about her. Stapelia gigantea (toad plant or carrion plant) is a cunning trickster. It needs lots and lots of flies to ensure pollination and attracts them by emitting a foul, rotting corpse smell. Stinky indeed! I vowed to return the next day to witness Audrey in all her putrid, full-blooming glory.

Day Three: Audrey curls her lip, ready to bloom.

Day Four: Stapelia gigantea

Stapelia, aka toad plant or carrion plant in full, stinky bloom. 

In fact, I returned three times before Audrey's bloom opened wide. I guess she was waiting for a perfect sunny day to make her début. Lanky-man was right. Stinky! The neighbourhood flies were much impressed. I decided against a return visit. If Audrey makes that much stink on her own, imagine the stench when her friends join the fly-baiting fun!

stillpoint is the blog of Canadian author Cheryl Cooke Harrington

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At 4:05 pm, Blogger Sandy Cody said...

Love, love, love this post. I suppose fragrance is like beauty - in the eye (or nose) of the beholder. The flies obviously like what you consider a stinky odor. Isn't nature wonderful!

At 4:18 pm, Blogger Cheryl said...

Thank you, Sandy. I agree. Nature is full of miracles and if we're lucky, and take our time, we just might see (or smell) a few. Thanks for visiting!

At 4:20 pm, Blogger Heidi said...

Who knew? Yikes! This makes me think of the conservatory at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. Around this time of year their seasonal display always includes poisonous plants and anything else that makes you go ick. Kind of far away for you to visit--but, if you are ever out this way, it is a must.

At 11:26 pm, Blogger Cheryl said...

I've always wanted to visit San Francisco, Heidi - even more now that I know there's a spot with icky plants on display. LOL Thanks for the tip - and thanks for reading!

At 8:34 am, Blogger Carol Hutchens said...

Love the post and your photos, Cheryl.
What a wonderful place...imagine...not a body at all but a stinky toad in bloom! Thanks for sharing

At 10:32 am, Blogger Karen McCullough said...

That was fun! I'm so glad you persisted in visiting until you got a shot of the open flowers. I can see how that plant could inspire some nightmare scenarios!

At 12:43 pm, Blogger Cheryl said...

Thanks for stopping by, Carol and Karen - glad you enjoyed the photos. It really is the perfect place to relax and recharge. I'm fortunate to live nearby. There are always lots of beautiful blooms but this was the first time I encountered such an "interesting" fragrance! (I really did have dreams about it, too!)

At 5:53 pm, Anonymous Victoria M. Johnson said...

Hi Cheryl--
What a wonderful photographer you are! Not to mention great storyteller :-) That flower bud definitely looked otherworldly to me. You were brave to go back.

At 6:06 am, Blogger Cheryl said...

Thank you, Victoria - glad you enjoyed the story and photos. Not so much brave as curious. (Also, prepared to hold my breath and dash!)

At 8:09 pm, Anonymous Susan McNicoll said...

This was fantastic Cheryl. I had to stop myself from skipping to the end (patience is not my strong suit) but I fought the urge and followed the story slowly. Nature is so incredibly amazing to me and here you found your own little Shop of Horrors on your doorstep.

At 9:15 pm, Blogger Cheryl said...

Thanks, Susan. Glad you enjoyed it. (I know I should jump right into the action but some things deserve a slow build-up. ;-) I remember having "pet" Venus Fly Traps when my boys were young. Thank goodness they didn't know about this plant - not something I'd want in my kitchen.

At 10:32 pm, Anonymous Susan McNicoll said...

That's funny. I was thinking of Venus Fly Traps when I read this. My brother gave me one for Christmas one year and I thought it was cool (which tells you a lot about my family - both myself and my brother!!!),

At 9:45 am, Blogger Cheryl said...

I've always thought they were pretty cool, too, Susan. What's not to like about a plant with a big, snappy mouth? LOL

At 5:23 pm, OpenID said...

At one of the colleges nearby we have the notorious corpse flower, Titum Arum. It was such a big deal when it opened that there's a time lapse movie of it - and fortunately it does not not come with smell-o-vision:

At 5:44 pm, Blogger Cheryl said...

Fascinating, Paula. Thanks for the link! I've been hearing a lot about these incredible plants lately - even read a mystery novel called Corpse Flower (by Gloria Ferris) that featured Titum Arum in the plot. Glad you stopped by!

At 2:34 pm, Blogger Colleen Story said...

Amazing, Cheryl! Very interesting. Thanks for sharing.


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