Missouri Botanical Garden
2:01 pm
Tue July 1, 2014

Stopping To Smell A Corpse (Flower) At The Botanical Garden

You still have a few hours left to smell the corpse flower.

Izzy, the Titan Arum, or "corpse flower" bloomed Monday night at the Missouri Botanical Garden. People from all over the region came to see it and smell its nasty odor.
Izzy, the Titan Arum, or "corpse flower" bloomed Monday night at the Missouri Botanical Garden. People from all over the region came to see it and smell its nasty odor.
Credit Alan Greenblatt

The Titan Arum, an Aroid plant from Sumatra, is currently in bloom at the Missouri Botanical Garden. It flowers rarely, but when it does, its strong odor definitely carries.

“It smells like rotting flesh,” said Andrew Wyatt, the Garden's vice president of horticulture. “It spreads the foul smell over many miles because it’s trying to attract pollinators from another plant several miles away.”

After the flower bloomed around 3 p.m. on Monday, the garden stayed open until 2 a.m., allowing around 1,900 people to catch a glimpse -- and a whiff -- of the plant.

The smell will likely linger into Tuesday afternoon.

“Half of St. Louis apparently came out,” said Michael Spear, who lives nearby on the Hill. “Just seeing the St. Louis community come out in droves to see this flower has been pretty cool.”

The plant expends a great deal of energy when in bloom, reaching a temperature of 99 degrees -- hotter than healthy humans. A Titan Arum, which can grow as large as 250 pounds, can lose as much as 20 percent of its weight during its brief bloom period, said Emily Colletti, the horticulturist who cares for the garden’s collection.

The Missouri Botanical Garden, like other conservatories in the U.S., got its seeds from a Chicago physician with an interest in botany. Titan Arums have bloomed elsewhere, but rarely -- only about 160 times under cultivation.

The Gardens had no luck. Until recently.

“I was here for 10 years before any of them bloomed,” Colletti said. “Prior to that, we hadn’t had any, so were kind of like the laughing stock of the botanical gardens.”

The Garden has “caught up,” she noted, with four blooms in the past three years. This particular plant, known as Izzy, also bloomed in May 2012.

The crowds were much more sparse the last time around. The garden promoted the event this time through social media and received plenty of attention from local news outlets.

“We saw it on the news,” said Bree Bowen, who brought her son, Brett, to see the plant despite having a broken ankle herself. “What 9-year-old boy doesn’t want to smell rotting flesh?”

The atmosphere inside the Linnean House Monday night was a bit surreal. On a night with a nail sliver of a moon, no lights were turned on, save one illuminating Izzy. The sound of cannons could be heard from a concert performance of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture in neighboring Tower Grove Park.

Bree Bowen brought her son, Brett, to see the plant despite having a broken ankle herself. "What 9-year-old boy doesn't want to smell rotting flesh?"

Flies attracted by the garbage scent were both visible and audible. The plant itself boasted a large, red-and-green leaf framing a tall, science-fiction looking stem. Its Latin name is Amorphophallus titanum.

As the crowd slowly entered the greenhouse, waiting patiently for those ahead to take their pictures and move on, there was an informal contest to describe the smell: “a dumpster with dead things in it”; “a fish tank that has gone bad”; “like a dead deer in a ditch.”

Bernadette Donohue, whose first job out of college was at a medical school, said it smelled worse than cadavers.

“I’m not eating after this,” said Allison Gibson, a fifth grader who came with her mom to take notes for a summer writing project at St. Margaret of Scotland School.

She described the odor as “a rotten egg and a dead animal mixed together,” but was nevertheless impressed by the plant and its size -- Izzy weighs 40 pounds and stands 62 inches tall.

“I thought it was a cool color from the inside,” Allison said. “I didn’t mind the smell. I just didn’t want to be around it all day.”