comscore Explaining the strange, stinky appeal of the ‘corpse flower’

Explaining the strange, stinky appeal of the ‘corpse flower’

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A little more than a week after crowds at the Denver Botanic Gardens welcomed the smelly bloom of its resident titan arum, known as the corpse flower, another of the flowers failed to give visitors at the Chicago Botanic Garden a similar, smelly show.

As 8,200 people passed through the garden on Sunday, noses upturned in hope, two expert handlers were working to coax their 12-year-old corpse flower, named Spike, into its next phrase of fragrant bloom.

The pair, Shannon Still, a conservation scientist, and Tim Pollak, a floriculturist, became worried because Spike’s spathe, the large, cabbage-textured leaf that protects the plant’s flowers, had started to shrivel and wither.

So, as a breathless crowd watched, the two cut into the plant’s spathe to see if it was producing pollen.

"The enthusiasm was unbelievable," Pollak said in a phone interview on Tuesday. "People were clapping and cheering, almost like a sporting event, in a way."

With a slow blooming cycle that can span over a decade, the Amorphophallus titanum has qualities that can drive a crowd wild and provide a botanist with a rare taste of celebrity.

For one, the fickle flowers, natives of rain forests in western Sumatra, Indonesia, rarely bloom, even in their native environment. For another, the flower was discovered only about 130 years ago, and only around 220 blooms have been publicly registered, Still said. With a growth record of over 10 feet, the plants are the largest flowering structures in the world.

Also, they smell like garbage. Or like something dying. It depends on whom you ask.

"It’s human nature that we all want to smell something bad, I guess," Pollak said. "You know when someone smells something bad and they stuff it in your face? That’s what you get."

Visitors in the Chicago crowd didn’t get outright stench, but they did get a hands-on experience: Still and Pollak began passing around pieces of Spike’s spathe to the visitors. On Tuesday, they said that Spike was beginning to emit a more putrid odor — a bad sign regarding nearly anything else in the world, but a good sign for this plant — and that visiting hours would be extended until Thursday.

In Denver, the visitors who had been hoping for a stinky celebration had gotten luckier. They described the scent as rotting cabbage, dead mice and, oddly, Italian sausage when they stepped close to lean into the blooming flower, named Stinky. Stinky lasted a few days before it crumpled and entered a dormant phase.

Spike will be moved on Thursday back into a production greenhouse, where it will either pollinate (unlikely) or enter a dormant phase. Still said that even its failure to bloom would provide more opportunities to extend what experts know about the plant, which, given its relatively short history as a research specimen, is comparatively little.

Think of these huge plants as the giant panda of the plant world: Researchers are trying to increase the genetic diversity of the fragile plants, but their erratic blooming schedule can make it difficult. Experts at gardens around the country have passed along knowledge and resources when possible. In the case of Spike, officials at the Denver Botanic Gardens rushed to ship frozen pollen to help Spike bloom, but they also offered practical advice.

"One of the big things that we learned was how to deal with crowd control," Pollak said.

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