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Foul-smelling plant blooms near US Capitol

A titan arum, a huge plant native to Indonesia, went into full malodorous bloom on Sunday evening at the US Botanic Garden conservatory, drawing thousands of visitors seeking to inhale its putrid stench.

By Staff / July 22, 2013

At left, a titan arum, or 'corpse flower,' plant at the US Botanic Garden on the morning of Friday, July 19. Center, the same plant, Sunday evening. At right, the plant on Monday morning.

Photos courtesy United States Botanic Garden

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An enormous plant on Capitol Hill is in bloom, after vigorously emitting a putrid smell that many likened to that of a rotting corpse.

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Kept at the United States Botanic Garden Conservatory, the titan arum is famous among botanists for having the largest unbranched inflorescense of any plant in the world, which one way of saying that it is the world's biggest flower (though technically it's made of several hundred flowers, like a daisy). In the wild, it can grow up to 12 feet tall.

But the plant, which is native to the steamy rain forests of Sumatra, Indonesia, is probably best known for the malodorous M.O. that it has evolved to attract pollinators.

"It was a little like when a trash truck passes you on a hot day," says Laura Condeluci, the Botanic Garden's public programs coordinator, in a phone interview. "It's definitely that rotting smell."

When titan arum blooms – and it does so unpredictably, sometime waiting years or even decades to share its revolting stench with the world – it uses the noxious fragrance to attract dung beetles and carrion-eating insects, which can then serve to spread the plant's pollen. 

The fetid odor is only one of titan arum's methods to draw bugs. The plant also generates heat; when blooming, parts of the plant warm to roughly human body temperature. The warmth not only helps the mephitic scent carry over larger distances, but it also helps fool any visitors into further believing that it is composed of recently deceased flesh.

"You look around and you think, where's the dead animal?" said Bill McLaughlin, the Botanic Garden's plant curator.

'It comes to find you.'

This particular titan arum had never bloomed before. It had been living at a facility near the Botanic Gardens, when horticulturalists noticed that the plant was starting to flower. The putrescent plant was transported to a display area at the Botanic Garden Conservatory, where it grew from four to eight feet in just ten days.

Then, on Sunday evening, Mr. McLaughlin saw that the plant's collar was loosening a bit. He climbed up a ladder and peered inside.

"I got the first little waft of odor and a little pulse of heat," he said. "It was quite a queasy odor."

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