WASHINGTON – Rotting meat. Dead rat. Decaying flesh.
The smell is rank,invasive. Those who have experienced the pungent titan arum in bloom said they could only stay near the “very ripe” plant for a few minutes.
So why are people voluntarily planning to afflict their olfactory organs when the plant blooms as soon as this weekend?
“It's one of these things that you might never see again,” said Sandra Brown,an ecologist with Winthrop International,a nonprofit environmental group. “This big stinky thing – it's an unusual event.”
Brown,60,and her sister,Ann Davies,52,dropped by the U.S. Botanic Garden Thursday expecting to see plants,but not the massive Sumatra native,known scientifically as Amorphophallus titanum.
Now that they know about the rare plant and even rarer blooming,they plan to come back to see – and smell – it for themselves.
The plant,which is owned by the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History,is on display at the Botanic Garden. There's also a chart tracking its rapid growth,up to several inches a day,and a case of beetles. By Friday,the plant was 51 ½-inches tall and 34 inches around. Experts estimate it will bloom Saturday or Sunday. The bloom lasts two days.
Those taking care of the plant expect a steady stream of visitors,although not the 70,000 who came two years ago when a different titan arum bloomed at the height of the summer tourist season.
“Freak shows have always been popular,” said W. John Kress,chairman of the botany department at the Natural History Museum and an expert on the Araceae plant family,to which the smelly plant belongs. “Like the panda,it represents nature in a fabulous,exciting way. It becomes an icon for what nature is about.”
Christine A. Flanagan,Botanic Garden public programs manager,has a different explanation.
“There is so much bad news,people want to see something that is frivolous,” she said. “And,it's big.”
Colleen Delvecchio,17,and her high school classmates from Durham,Conn.,were hard-pressed to even figure out what the thing was.
“What exactly is that,like,a big flower?” Delvecchio asked. “It doesn't really look like a normal flower.”
Dan Nicolson,curator of the botany department at the Natural History Museum and one of the world's leading experts on the Araceae plant family,was on hand Thursday answering questions.
“It smells like dead rat. Mmmm,” he said,grinning as he explained that the smell attracts carrion beetles and flies that are “very disappointed” because a plant “really isn't what they expected.” The insects lay their eggs in rotting meat.
In the wild,the insects are temporarily trapped inside the large blossom,which is made up of thousands of tiny flowers. When the pollen-dusted beetles and flies crawl out of the blossom,they fly directly to fertilize another odoriferous blossom.
Since the plants can't pollinate themselves and there are only about a dozen in cultivation in the United States,pollinating the titan arum gets a bit tricky.
The answer,however,may lie in Botanic Garden Director Holly Shimizu's refrigerator. She has pollen gathered from the titan arum that bloomed two years ago,some frozen,some refrigerated. While the experts don't know if it will work,they plan to fertilize this plant with the old pollen.
“It's hard to know how long pollen lasts,” Kress said. “It's all experimental.”
Paul Humann,a photographer and author,collects palms as a hobby at his home in Davie,Fla. He has visited gardens around the world,but this was his first time at the Botanic Garden.
“Is this the one that's supposed to smell so bad?” Humann,68,asked. “Isn't that outrageous? It's so beautiful,but smells like decaying flesh.”
“Most people think of plants smelling nice,” Nicolson said. “This baby is geared up for a different pollinator.”