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.

Photos courtesy United States Botanic Garden
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.
Click the icon above to sample the odor of the titan arum.

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

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."

McLaughlin says that it isn't the worst smell that he'd ever gotten off a plant. There are other plants that, if you put your nose close to them, smell worse, he says. But the sheer size of the plants in this genus makes the scent harder to escape.

"You don't have to stick your head near it," says McLaughlin of the stomach-churning fetor. "It comes to find you."

"It sort of keeps filling your lungs," he says of the plant's nauseating perfume, which ultimately filled the entire building. "It's not the most appetizing thing around dinner time."

'A good reason for botanic gardens'

The US Botanic Garden keeps about 15 titan arums, with the last olid bloom occurring in 2007. The reeking plants tend to be a huge draw for the conservatory.

Condeluci, who described the crowds as "incredible," noted that nearly 100,000 people have visited in the past 10 days, amounting to nearly a tenth of the conservatory's annual visitors.  

Condeluci notes that most people lack the resources to cultivate a titan arum on their own, as it requires precisely controlled temperature conditions. "This is a good reason for botanic gardens," she says.

Yet these visiting throngs were probably spared the worst of the titan arum's repugnant effusions, which occurred mostly overnight when when the conservatory was closed.

"What's tough for public gardens is that it only cranks that smell out for eight to twelve hours," says McLaughlin. "We find ourselves in the awkward position of disappointing people by not smelling bad enough."

The noisome plant takes so long to bloom because of the time it takes to store energy in its gigantic underground stem, called a corm. The corm, which can weigh more than 200 pounds, takes several years to accumulate the needed fuel to heat the plant, before it opens up and unleashes its loathsome, pungent miasma.

"It kind of does what it wants when it wants," says McLaughlin.

The blooming period is expected to last between 24 and 48 hours, after which the above-ground portion of the plant dies and the corm enters a dormant period. 

By any other name...

The scientific name for the titan arum is Amorphophallus titanum – a term best left untranslated in a family news publication. The English broadcaster and naturalist David Attenborough christened the stinky plant "titan arum," for his 1995 documentary "The Private Life of Plants," out of concern that the BBC wouldn't take kindly to repeatedly hearing the scientific name. "Titan arum" stuck, and the name is now widely used for the foul-smelling species.

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