Standing in line for a 30-minute wait outside a greenhouse on the University of Washington campus, I started preparing myself mentally for the odor that would envelop me once I got inside. Yes, odor. I was about to enter the sultry world of the Amorphophallus titanum, better known as a corpse flower in its native Sumatra, which had begun to open earlier in the day. The University’s Biology Department has been coaxing these gargantuan plants to bloom and has been successful, off and on, since 1999.
Over the years I heard the broadcasts and read the announcements: “Breaking news: ginormous flower emitting aroma of rotting meat has just bloomed at the U.W. The greenhouse will be open to the public for viewing over the next three days.” Whenever this happened I told myself that when I retired I would make time to see, smell, and photograph this pungent posy. At three a.m. on June 9, for the first time since 2008, the flower gradually revealed its inner beauty and its foul smell, the function of the latter being to attract certain insects, including the carrion beetle, to pollinate it.
I remembered that years ago, when my mother and I traveled to Morocco, before visiting an outdoor leather tannery in the medina of Fez, our guides gave us stems of mint to hold under our noses. They obviously knew from experience that Western probosces were only accustomed to mild odors and might act up in the presence of fresh animal hides. This made me consider picking up some mint to take with us to the campus, but ultimately, in the midst of all the things going on right now with my mother’s health, that thought left me shortly after it arrived.
Standing in line outside the entrance to the greenhouse from somewhere in my vicinity wafted the scent of unwashed socks and dirty feet. I then noticed that the woman in line ahead of me smelled of sweat. I suspected both these odors were part of a grand plan to prepare me for what was to come. Time passed quickly as a student turned our waiting period into a lecture and filled in the gaps, which were many, in our knowledge about Amorphophallus titanum. “I love this,” he said. “The only time botany gets any attention is when this flower blooms. And then it gets a lot!”
Our impromptu lecturer told us that when the flower first opened, “You could smell it five blocks away.” Sadly, 12 hours later, its scent had dissipated and was less pungent than the redolent human odors around me, especially after about 30 of us had been standing in the humid hothouse for 20 minutes, as those ahead of us ascended and descended the viewing ladder and snapped their photos. However, the plant did not disappoint. It was the biggest flower I had ever seen, spectacularly beautiful both inside and out, with the sensuality of a Georgia O’Keefe painting. I got my photos, including one of my husband lured like an insect over the bloom and about to fall inside, and left satisfied that something I had been yearning to see for more than 10 years was finally, literally, at my fingertips.