Elusive ‘Corpse’ Flower Readies for Collapse

BY Jenny Marder  July 23, 2013 at 6:03 PM EDT

An estimated 120,000 people have viewed the giant “corpse flower” since it bloomed Sunday at the U.S. Botanic Garden. Photo by Justin Scuiletti.

WASHINGTON — After stubbornly staying closed days longer than expected, the U.S. Botanic Garden’s great titan arum flower finally unfurled its leaves into a spectacular burgundy bloom on Sunday, releasing a corresponding spectacular odor. And by Tuesday, less than 40 hours after it opened, it was already cowering, wilting and poised to collapse onto itself.

The death of the flower, often called the “corpse flower” or “stinky plant,” is arguably as interesting as its bloom. First the petals, or “spathe” retreat inward. Then the spadix, the phallic looking thing pointing upward like a vertical loaf of bread keels over. Then, total collapse.

“It’s bittersweet,” Ari Novy, a plant scientist and spokesman for the garden. “But a large part of the public interest I think is the awareness of that ephemeral nature.”

By Tuesday, people were already mourning that they had missed the grandeur of Monday’s spectacle and bloom.

Washington resident Judi Carmichael visited the Botanic Gardens every day last week and sat on the same bench, watching the veins on the plant protrude more, she said, waiting for the flower to unfurl. “And she wouldn’t open,” she said.

Until Monday, the one day she was unable to visit. “She’s so temperamental,” Carmichael lamented. “The typical woman.”

By Tuesday, many viewers were expressing disappointment — that they’d missed the full bloom, that they couldn’t smell it, that it was already, only two days after the big announcement, dying.

But some overlooked the wilt to embrace the flower.

“I think it’s so beautifully sculpted,” said Aubrey Williams of Arlington, Va. “The smell, the size, the color, the fact that it comes from the deep forest of Sumatra. It’s magnificent.”


Tourists visit the blooming titan arum plant on July 22 at the US Botanic Garden in Washington, DC. Photo by Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images.

Those who had seen it in full bloom described the smell, which has been compared to dirty gym socks, a box of dead rabbits, skunk cabbage and “a very dead elephant.”

Novy, for example, had clearly taken time to consider the odor.

“To me, it smelled like a dead deer in a humid environment like the Florida Everglades next to a pile of teenager’s dirty laundry,” he said. “It’s a weird, funny mix of dead-animal smell and moldy, damp fabric.”

The roots of the titan arum, native to the tropical rainforests of Sumatra, spring from a massive underground stem called a “corm,” which looks kind of like a giant potato. Most years, the plant produces a leaf that resembles a canopy of many leaves, which are actually called leaflets. That leaf lasts anywhere from 12 to 18 months and then goes into a dormant stage. But occasionally, and seemingly arbitrarily, it produces a flower. There’s no rhyme or reason to when that flower will bloom and it can open up anywhere from every few years to every few decades.

When it does bloom, it emits chemicals into the air — that’s the source of the rotting odor — and the spadix heats up to more than 90 degrees Fahrenheit. The heat and smell attracts insects, like dung and carrion beetles and flies. And here’s the trick. Some of those insects repollinate the plant by carrying pollen from another titan arum, which allows the cycle to repeat itself.

This particular titan arum, which stretches eight feet in height and weighs as much as 80 pounds, was the size of a lima bean when it arrived at the facility in 2005. It was carefully cultivated by a man named Elliot Norman, who monitored the soil, temperature and humidity and kept it watered and fed.

“There are a handful of people throughout the world who have learned how to steward these plants, and they use different techniques, some of them from intuition,” Novy said. “These people know how to read plants and soil. It’s a science, but it’s an art too.”