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.

Botanists have waited patiently for the bloom to debut. The plant has been tended for the past 12 years by Michael Bordelon, greenhouse collections manager at the Botany Department of the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, which owns the plant.

"I'm the daddy," said Bordelon, who stood beside his creation yesterday to answer visitors' many questions. "I have the college fund started already."

It is only the third time that a plant of its kind has blossomed in Washington. It was a different plant, one owned by the Botanic Garden, that bloomed two years ago, drawing about 10,000.

Sure, it's a big plant, which yesterday afternoon measured 4 feet, 4 inches from base to pointy tip (its species is the largest known unbranched flower structure on the planet). But let's be real: It wasn't majesty that drew people to the garden. They came to catch a gut-churning, once-in-a-lifetime whiff.

Sort of like "Fear Factor" with flora.

Sadly, not all walked away quite as nauseated as they'd wished. That's because the blossom smells. But not all the time. If you weren't standing in the right place, or if the clogged line of visitors was moving too swiftly, you may have missed the main attraction, which occurs when the plant imperceptibly emits a rather foul smell.

Sometimes, timing really is everything.

"I'm underwhelmed," said Eric Zanot, 62, of College Park. "I wanted it to be far more putrid and revolting."

Nancy Dickerson, 33, of Arlington agreed, wrinkling her nose. Where, she wondered, was the one-two punch? "I was kind of hoping it would be more awful," Dickerson said, at which point a volunteer steered her closer to the bloom.

Dennis Wamsley, 63, was annoyed. Not so much at the bloom, but at the TV reporter whose report Saturday night implied that the odor was so bad, he was being overcome.

"He sounded like he was pushing for double-time pay," the Charles County resident said. "It's not as bad as that."

Wamsley's wife, Barbara, 60, brought a mask her doctor had given her to avoid germs during the cold season. She sprayed it liberally with a strong rose-scented perfume. Just in case the bloom proved too gross. She never put it on.

"In the end, I had to experience the smell," she said. "It wasn't so overpowering that I had to use it."

For hours yesterday, the plant enjoyed the kind of A-list celebrity seldom seen in gardens. If the titan arum was able, it probably would have booked a table at Spago.

Alas, fame is fleeting for the titan arum, which blooms for 24 to 48 hours. When it's done showing off, the plant will lie dormant as a tuber, entering a leaf cycle once before flowering again. Officials said the bloom cycle is unpredictable, which makes the advent of a flower so special.

This year's blossom is more pungent than the bloom in 2003, they said. At 1 p.m., W. John Kress, chairman of Natural History Museum's Botany Department, said the best was yet to come. "As the day goes on, it get more and more pungent, particularly around sunset," Kress said. "Some people say it smells bad. I say it smells intense. Maybe I'm part beetle."

The Botanic Garden, at 100 Maryland Ave. SW, across from the U.S. Capitol, is open from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. today. For details on the blooms' status -- which officials say will be past their peak -- check and the webcam set up to track the flower, or call 202-225-8333.

At the U.S. Botanic Garden, Dan Nicolson of the Museum of Natural History's Botany Department explains peculiarities of the titan arum.Jeremiah Walker, 4, of Falls Church had strong feelings about the star attraction. The plant blooms for only 24 to 48 hours.Ronnie Zweig, left, a volunteer at the U.S. Botanic Garden, tries to get a closer look at the titan arum -- as well as a better whiff.