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The short, wondrous stink of Missouri Botanical Garden's corpse flower

The corpse flower after blooming
Jim Santel | St. Louis Beacon | 2013
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This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 21, 2013: The plant is a strange mixture of contradictions: Its flower takes only a few weeks to reach a height of nearly 6 feet, but only a few hours to open and fade away. It is beautiful to look at, but not so pleasant to smell. Its rapid flowering comes as a burst of life, but its informal name evokes death. It’s known as a corpse flower.

One of these rare plants, more formally called the amorphophallus titanum, or titan arum, bloomed Thursday night at the Missouri Botanical Garden, filling the garden’s Linnean House with a pungent odor and drawing large crowds on Friday.

Because the corpse flower’s bloom is completed within a matter of hours, the public didn’t have a chance to see the flower at its peak height, which it reached at about 1 a.m. Friday morning. By Friday afternoon, the flower’s distinctive central structure, a pointed spike known as a spadix, had already bent over on itself, giving the plant the odd look of a wizard’s hat.

Nevertheless, the bloom’s structure remained intact, and though the foul odor — perhaps more like a fine old cheese than rotting flesh — had diminished significantly by day’s end, a line still stretched out of the Linnean House’s door well after 4 p.m.

Yan Peng and Brian Whitesel were visiting St. Louis from Omaha. They learned about the titan arum from a friend’s Facebook post and decided to stop by.

People line up outside the Linnean House at the Missouri Botanical Garden to see, and smell, the corpse flower.
Credit Jim Santel | St. Louis Beacon | 2013
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People line up outside the Linnean House at the Missouri Botanical Garden to see, and smell, the corpse flower.

“I was kind of expecting worse,” Whitesel said of the scent. He hastened to add, with emphasis: “It still stinks. It’s kind of a sickly sweet smell.”

“It smells like a dead squirrel,” said Sue Chaires, who works as a horticulturist with a local firm. Despite her extensive experience with plants, she’d never seen a titan arum in bloom.

Bill Lepak of south city took off work early to see the corpse flower with his family. Like many other visitors, he agreed that the plant was smelly, though perhaps not as smelly as its necrotic nickname suggests.

“I’ve never smelled rotting flesh before,” Lepak said, excusing himself from judging whether “corpse flower” is an apt title. “It’s definitely not a smell you want to hang out in,” he added.

Hang out in the smell is exactly what Emily Colletti did on Friday, however. Colletti is the garden’s horticulturist in charge of research and aroids, making her responsible for the corpse flower collection. She spent about six hours in the Linnean House on Friday answering visitors’ questions.

People are willing to stand in line to see a single flower, Colletti said, “because it’s so rare. Everyone wants to smell it.”

Colletti said that visitors tend to be a bit disappointed by the smell because by the time the public gets to see the flowers, the scent — which the plant deploys to attract flies, its main pollinators — has faded with the blossom. She assured the Beacon that the plant smelled much worse on Thursday night, when she and other staff members tracked the plant’s unfolding from 7 p.m. until midnight, taking photos and measurements and completing a manual pollination. “You could almost taste it,” she said of the previous night’s odor.

Amanda Colletti, Emily’s daughter, had assisted her mother with measurements on Thursday night. “It smelled terrible,” she said, “like something was rotting, like old meat.” Both Amanda and Emily Colletti agreed that this corpse flower didn’t smell as bad as the one that bloomed in June of 2012.

While this blossom may not have been as hard on the nostrils as earlier blooms, Emily Colletti said that this one was easier on the eyes. Last summer’s corpse flowers closed up at the end of their flowering periods, while this one has remained open in a kind of elegant collapse.

“This is cooler, because everyone gets to see the maroon color” of the bloom’s leaves, Colletti said.

While St. Louisans have seen three of these blossoms in recent years — one titan arum opened at the University of Missouri-St. Louis in 2011, and two opened at the Botanical Garden in the summer of 2012 — they remain a rare occurrence. According to the Garden, fewer than 160 flowerings have been documented in the last 120 years. 

For Emily Colletti, each bloom remains an occasion for excitement.

“It’s like Christmas,” she said.

A smelly Christmas, to be sure.

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