Beware the stinky plant – its odor is its allure

McClatchy Washington BureauJuly 16, 2013 

Tourists admire the Titan Arum at the U.S. Botanical Garden in Washington, D.C., July 16, 2013. When it blooms, it smells like rotting meat.

KATE IRBY — MCT

— Here’s a seldom-used mating tactic: Pretend to be a dead animal.

While probably bad advice for most of us, that’s what passes for romance in the world of the titan arum, otherwise known as the corpse flower, or more commonly, the stinky plant.

And is it ever.

The plant emits a strong, nauseating odor once it blooms that is said to smell like rotting flesh. But it’s catnip to beetles, which usually root around in animal corpses and dung, which serve to pollinate the flowers.

The U.S. Botanic Garden has a stinky plant set to bloom any day now, its first since 2007. Native to the tropical rainforests of Sumatra, Indonesia, the sight – and smell – of the plant is rare on this side of the world.

And now, like the White House and the Jefferson Memorial, it’s become another capital tourist attraction, at least briefly.

Call it the “weird factor,” said Bill McLaughlin, plant curator at the Botanic Garden. A live webcam on the plant received more than 70,000 views on Tuesday, even before it has bloomed.

“This is the first one to bloom since the advent of social media, and we’ve had a live webcam on it 24 hours a day,” McLaughlin said. “So we’re looking at a huge increase in the past two days of people watching this flower, and what we’re hoping – and fearing – is that a lot of them are waiting to see it flip open and then they’re going to get in line, and that would be an unprecedented crowd for us.”

Caroline Siegert, a 16-year-old high school junior from Fairfax, Va., and her mother arrived at 10 a.m. Tuesday and spent a fruitless day at the garden hoping to witness the flower emerge. But they intend to return Wednesday, and if the plant still refuses to bloom then, they will go back Thursday, and even Friday.

“I want to become a botanist, so we were planning to come here anyway,” Caroline said. “But when we saw on the website that this was supposed to be blooming, we thought it was great and really wanted to see it.”

McLaughlin said that ever since the garden’s last flowering titan arum six years ago, someone has asked every day if they had the exotic plant.

“So for 2,000 days in a row we’ve said ‘no,’ but today we can say ‘yes,’” he said. “But they want the stink, too, which is just a one-day event.”

The smell, however, represents only one oddity in a long list of weird traits. The stinky plant is also huge. This one is currently six and a half feet tall and still growing. The shortest one was around four feet, and the tallest was over 10 feet.

They also grow very fast; McLaughlin said garden workers didn’t even know this bud would be a flower until about a week ago, And, like something out of a bad science fiction movie, it’s growing: 10 inches since Sunday.

Once it blooms and reveals its maroons, purples and reds, the stinky plant will only stay open for 24 to 48 hours before the flower starts to collapse. Death will come within a week, but an underground part of the plant, called the tuber, stays alive.

McLaughlin said while there’s hope every year that the tuber will produce a flower, nine times out of 10 it’s a single, umbrella-like leaf. He predicted that the flower will open Thursday morning, but there’s no way to be sure.

“It’s funny, because people are coming in to see a flower that isn’t very floral, at all,” he said. “They’re coming in to gag, and laugh and point and hold their nose, and experience something that very few people get to experience.”

Email: Kirby@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @kateirby

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