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With Wrinkled Noses, Crowds React To Giant Flower's Corpse-Like Scent

Many spectators photographed the giant flower. (Sacha Pfeiffer/WBUR)

BOSTON — A countdown has been on at the Franklin Park Zoo over the past few days for the blooming of a so-called corpse flower, which gets its name from the smell of rotting flesh it gives off when it blooms. That sometimes happens only once a decade, and at the zoo Tuesday night, that reeking bloom finally began.

This plant has been nicknamed Morticia, and since Friday nearly 12,000 people have visited the zoo to get a whiff of its stench. When I got there at about 11 a.m. Wednesday to smell it myself, I ran into Matt Aumiller of Hyde Park, who was exiting the greenhouse where the plant lives. I asked him what kind of odor I should expect when I walked in.

“It doesn’t smell as bad as they said. It smells like a wet dog,” Aumiller replied. “A wet dog who’s been running around in the woods all day. That’s what I would say!”

Six-year-old Ariel Hui covers her nose while visiting the corpse flower. (Sacha Pfeiffer/WBUR)

By Wednesday morning, the plant had been in bloom since about 9 p.m. Tuesday, and a corpse flower’s worst smell comes in the first few hours after it’s bloomed. So Morticia’s full force had worn off a bit by the time Wednesday’s crowds arrived. But it was still a twisted thrill for Alan Stern of Needham.

“To walk in here and be hit with that stench of rotting flies and flesh is fabulous,” Stern said, “because you don’t experience that at any other time, and to see something that’s so beautiful and large and happens so infrequently is really neat.”

The plant is almost 5 feet high, it weighs 200 pounds, and at its center is a tall, pointed, protruding growth that looks like a spear. That, you immediately realize, is why the plant’s Latin name is amorphophallus titanium. But most people came to see Morticia for her scent, not her looks.

Here’s how 7-year-old Selima Chan of Bedford described the odor: “Bad.” I asked just how bad, to which Selima answered, “Medium.” Her 8-year-old sister, Alethia, gave a similar verdict.

The zoo is displaying Morticia and a recently wilted corpse flower inside a makeshift greenhouse, which on Wednesday registered at 93 degrees and 65 percent humidity inside. (Sacha Pfeiffer/WBUR)

“This is a better smell than I expected,” she said. “I thought I would need a gas mask.”

But another little girl nearby seemed to disagree; she was covering her nose with a handkerchief. One woman said the flower reminded her of low tide. Another said the smell wasn’t so much bad as it was unpleasant.

“One person said it reminded them of a dead mouse in between the floorboards,” added Harry Liggett, the zoo’s manager of horticulture and grounds.

Liggett said corpse flowers are native to the Indonesian island of Sumatra, and he arranged for the Franklin Park Zoo to get Morticia and four other corpse flowers from a New Hampshire grower — although Liggett wasn’t around to see Morticia bloom Tuesday night.

“I’m kind of thinking I’m kind of glad I didn’t witness it,” he said.

I asked if the horticulture-loving part of him wishes he had been there for the flower’s full force odor.

“You know it, but I’ve been working crazy hours these days just staying with it and talking to the public, and I was turning into a corpse myself at that point,” Liggett said with a laugh.

If you want to experience the stench, you’ve basically missed your window. By the time we left Wednesday morning, zoo officials said the plant’s petals were already starting to droop and wilt, and any remaining odor was fading fast.

And if you did get to see Morticia at her prime on Wednesday, you know that the greenhouse where she resides — which was a sweltering 93 degrees with 65 percent humidity — made the temperature outside, despite the intense heat, feel like a cool spring day.

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  • Amcmanda

    I wish this story had included an explanation of why this plant gives off the odor it does when it blooms.  Google to the rescue again!!!  It does so in order to attract the particular insects that pollinate it.  Common sense, I guess. 

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