Hold your breath: It’s corpse flower season, and once again botanical gardens around America are eagerly awaiting the bloom of the world’s nastiest-smelling plant.
But you don't necessarily have to brave the pungent fumes to get a glimpse of the action. This week, not one but three botanical gardens launched live corpse flower cams designed to give people a peek of the action. At the New York Botanical Garden, high temperatures slowed the bloom of the about-to-burst flower. At Indiana University, another cam is trained on a bud expected to open soon. And at the United States Botanic Garden in Washington, D.C., the bloom is anticipated to take place anywhere between July 28 and 31.
Amorphophallus titanum is known as one of the world’s most majestic tropical plants. It has an extremely long lifecycle, which makes its rare blooms (once every four to five years) highly anticipated events. Hundreds of flowers cluster on a branch in the world’s largest example of inflorescence, the same phenomenon that makes multiple bluebells line up on a single stem.
During the fleeting 24-to-36-hour peak bloom, all of those tiny flowers—which are gathered on a spadix, or stem, emerge from the flower’s spathe—the plant’s big, lily-like petals. It’s an impressive sight, but the flower’s disgusting smell, which some compare to rotting flesh or dirty socks, is even more imposing. The scent attracts flies, who love such smells, in the hopes that they’ll help the plant pollinate and live on.
When scientists at Cornell University studied “wee stinky,” their local corpse flower, in 2012, they discovered that the flower emits chemicals like dimethyl disulfide, which smells like garlic, and indole, or eau de mothballs, when it blooms. That smell may be attractive to insects, but for humans it’s attractive for its novelty. The bizarrely gorgeous bloom has created a kind of flower race among botanical gardens worldwide, with triumph when the flower blooms and sorrow when it fails.
But maybe something else keeps people coming back for even more stench: As Erika Engelhaupt reports for National Geographic, a psychological phenomenon called “benign masochism,”—when people enjoy things they shouldn’t—could help explain the phenomenon. Whether you should or shouldn’t be into it, this year’s competing blooms are sure to give your nose (and your eyes) a run for their money.