National Geographic News
Visitors look at an unbloomed corpse flower.

Visitors look on in anticipation of the blossoming corpse flower at the U.S. Botanic Garden in Washington.

Photograph by Jonathan Ernst, Reuters

Lara Sorokanich

National Geographic

Published July 18, 2013

The U.S. Botanic Garden's corpse flower is proving to be a real stinker—and not in the way you'd expect.

The flower, named Titan arum, was expected to bloom last weekend but remains "stubbornly" closed up almost a week later.

"We're really concerned about it, because it hasn't lived up to the predictions," said Holly Shimizu, the executive director of the U.S. Botanic Garden. "I'm sort of distressed about it!"

But those extra days haven't detracted from the public's interest in the flower. Each day, tourists and botanists alike continue to flock to the atrium, hoping to catch a glimpse—or whiff—of the petulant plant.

What's the Big Deal?

The corpse flower is not your average daisy. For one, it towers over most other blooms, reaching heights as tall as an NBA basketball hoop. It rarely blooms, only once every six to ten years, and when it does, it is a force to be reckoned with.

"It reeks," said Roberta Gutman who has been volunteering at the Botanic Garden for nine years. The facility hosted a blooming corpse flower in 2007, and garden veterans still remember that signature scent today.

"It smelled like if you drive out to a farm where a cow died and sat out in the sun for a few days," one volunteer vividly described. Others have called it "the essence of rotting fish and rotting onions," and the "scent of a diaper of a 22-month-old," among other creative comparisons.

Whatever disgusting descriptions it inspires, the fact remains that the corpse flower is not a pleasant plant to be around. But that's also the precise reason why people are drawn to see it.

"Every flower that you encounter, it's a smell that humans like," said Mo Fayyaz, the greenhouse and garden director at the University of Wisconsin's Department of Botany, who has worked with corpse flowers in the past. "But this is different. It gets people excited."

Bloom Interrupted

Representatives at the Botanic Garden "have given up on trying to predict" when their famous flower will bloom. Shimizu said her money is on this weekend, "but then again earlier this week I said I thought it would be Wednesday."

Paradoxically, the corpse flower's delay in bloom hasn't taken away from its fanfare. In fact, the anticipation has made some fans more determined to wait for the final product.

"It makes me want to come back," said Sunny Anderson, a visitor from Houston, Texas, who's visited the garden daily in anticipation of the corpse flower's opening. "I've been waiting so long, now I have to see it happen!"

The garden is still seeing spikes in visitors as people continue pouring in with the hopes of catching the bloom at the right moment.

"It's like the royal baby watch, people are anticipating it," laughed Adam Pyle, a horticulturalist at the Botanic Gardens. "We're hoping ours comes first!"

As for what's causing the delay? Nobody can say. Workers at the garden have tried fertilizing, watering, and pampering it to no avail.

"It's a living thing," said Pyle, "It will bloom when it blooms. You can't force it."

Shimizu agreed, explaining that "the genes of this plant just don't want it to open yet."

"But people enjoy it," she added. "I think they appreciate the magic and mystery of the plant. This is a good example of that."

"Are you talking about the fickleness of the plants?" Gutman interrupted.

Shimizu corrected her, laughing: "The magic!"

Follow Lara Sorokanich on Twitter.

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