Smelling Is Believing

At the U.S. Botanic Garden, Dan Nicolson of the Museum of Natural History's Botany Department explains peculiarities of the titan arum.
At the U.S. Botanic Garden, Dan Nicolson of the Museum of Natural History's Botany Department explains peculiarities of the titan arum. (Photos By Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)

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By Leef Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 21, 2005

The curiosity that led more than 6,000 people to visit the U.S. Botanic Garden yesterday to inhale what is arguably the world's grossest flower can probably be best understood by those who insist on drinking from the expired carton of milk -- just to be sure it's bad.

After 14 years of waiting and about 12 hours of hard labor, the titan arum, or corpse flower as it aptly known in the not-so-green-thumb circles, delivered a very putrid bloom to a very delighted public on the Mall.

The smell -- reminiscent of long-dead rat with just a hint of brie -- filled the humid, glass-enclosed garden with intermittent waves of odor that inspired noses to be pinched and, in one case, the appearance of a perfume-spritzed surgical mask.

"Oh, yeah, that's a good one," said Kim Dyer, 39, of Reston, her face contorted by the smell as it wafted by. "That's definitely not something you want on your dining room table."

Lee Haacker, 71, of Williamsburg likened the flower to "a garbage can."

"It definitely doesn't make you think you're back in Hawaii."

The giant plant, which is native to Sumatra, Indonesia, has a tall, green spadix -- which looks a lot like the Washington Monument -- erupting from a frilly, blood-red cabbage. When it blooms, a fleshy spike of tiny female flowers at the base of the spadix becomes sticky to allow pollen to adhere, and its temperature rises.

It's a lot like, well, ovulation.

"That's exactly what's happening," said Holly Shimizu, executive director of the Botanic Garden. "It's probably in a bad mood, too."

The flower does, indeed, reek to attract attention. But not from you.

The odor is intended to attract carrion beetles, which travel the plant looking for what they believe is rotting meat. The beetles pick up the bloom's pollen and fertilize other plants.

Since the plant's blossoming Saturday, beginning about 7 p.m., research staffers have been hand-pollinating it, with pollen gathered from a 2003 blossom, to try to produce a second generation of seeds.

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