This flower, by any other name, would still stink

They came from hundreds of miles away - crowds armed with cameras, binoculars, and video equipment.

In southern California, such pack behavior usually means there's a celebrity on deck. And there was: a flower that smells like wet socks.

The Titan Arum, or Amorphophallus titanum, to be exact, is one of the largest - and smelliest - flowers in the world. Experts call it the "holy grail" of botany. Those who have whiffed it call it the "corpse flower."

Only 10 blossoms have been recorded in the entire United States this century. Meet No. 11 - and the first known bloom in California.

"This is really a once in a lifetime event not just for the public, but for us in the profession," says Kathy Musial, a curator at the Huntington botanical gardens here in posh San Marino, Calif. - home to the Titan.

This past weekend, more than 12,000 people came to the Huntington to see the plant - double the usual summer weekend attendance. And that was before it bloomed. Says Ms. Musial, while holed up in her trailer office: "If we ever have one of these bloom again, I'm taking a vacation."

T-shirts sold out in two days. A toll-free hotline kept the public abreast of Titan's progress. "I admit I came here just to see the plant," says Robert King of San Pedro, Calif., who posed for a picture with his wife. "I find it all very amazing."

Indeed, it didn't matter whether you were a trained botanist, a weekend gardener, or someone without a green forefinger. This work of nature united them all.

Even the normally jaded press has been captivated. One local news crew has made more than half a dozen trips - call them pilgrimages - over the last several days to check the plant's status.

Not long ago no one was even talking about the Titan, which is a native of Sumatra. It was only two weeks ago that it started to sprout. It now stands nearly six feet tall and its crimson flower - which looks like an inverted flamenco skirt - spans three feet across.

But let's face it: A Titan isn't a rose. Its fragrance is delicately described as the smell of "rotting flesh."

The Titan was donated to the Huntington in March by a botanist in Arizona, Mark Dimmitt. He grew it from seed, nurturing it in his greenhouse the past six years. When he handed over the plant, it was a giant tuber weighing 40 pounds.

Mr. Dimmitt decided to give the plant away because it sprouts an enormous umbrella-like leaf alternately with the flower. The leaves can reach up to 15 feet tall - higher than his greenhouse roof.

The timing of the flower has taken the Huntington a bit off guard. The plant was originally supposed to be featured in its new science center scheduled to open in several years. "This thing jumped the gun on us," says Musial.

Ironically, of the 10 blossoms recorded to date, half have flowered in the last two years. "In some bizarre way" it has something to do with the millennium, jokes Lisa Blackburn, a Huntington spokeswoman.

The first blossom debuted at the New York Botanical Gardens in 1937. It caused such a stir that police were called in to restore order. About a month ago, No. 10 flowered at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Then, Sunday at approximately 5 p.m. - 30 minutes after the gardens officially closed - No. 11's petals opened.

Its beauty is short-lived - the flower stage usually lasts only two to three days. But for those who have come to witness a piece of history, the memory will last forever.

"I came to take a picture of my 14-month-old daughter next to it," says John Helgeson of Sierra Madres, Calif.

Maybe, he says, this won't happen again for another 30 years. "It would be like my Dad taking a picture of me with Willie Mays when I was two years old."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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