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A Triplet of Corpse Flowers Will Soon Release Their Stench in D.C.

If you can’t make it to D.C., you can still catch the action (smell free) via live stream

One of the stinky blooms at the U.S. Botanic Garden just starting to open last year. (Victoria Pickering Flicker CC)
smithsonian.com
Update August 29, 2017: The third corpse flower is now in bloom at the U.S. Botanic Gardens, starting the stinky endeavor Monday evening. The two other corpse flowers bloomed earlier this month.

Smell that? Not one, but three corpse flowers are on the verge of blooming in the nation's capital, and excitement is running high for this odorous spectacle.

The bulbous buds are native to the Indonesian island of Sumatra, where they were first discovered in 1878 by Italian botanist Odoardo Beccari. He brought seeds from the gigantic plant to western Europe, and the first conservatory-grown corpse flower bloomed in England's Royal Botanic Gardens in 1889, to great acclaim. Eighty years ago this year, the species had its first bloom in the United States at the New York Botanic Garden.

The corpse flower's common name comes from the potent stench of rotting flesh emitted when the flowers are in bloom. Their scientific name, Amorphophallus titanum, plays off of their tall, phallic shape, translating from its Latin roots to mean "giant, misshapen penis." 

The smell and oddball shape of the flowers continue to draw crowds to botanic gardens across the country, attracting many visitors that might not otherwise willingly wander horticultural riches. This latest spate of blooms in Washington, D.C., appears to be the first time that any conservatory will have three corpse flowers open in all their smelly glory at once, according to the U.S. Botanic Garden, where the plants are located.

Besides entrancing garden visitors, what purpose does the nauseating smell of the corpse flower actually serve? It's about reproduction, Susan Pell, a botanist who serves as the manager of public programs at the U.S. Botanic Garden.

"It's mimicking the smells of rot so that they can attract the flies and beetles that pollinate them," Pell tells Smithsonian.com.

That nose-wrinkling smell is, thankfully, fleeting, Pell notes, since corpse flowers only bloom for about 24 hours before collapsing back into the ground. This brief window is likely due to how "resource intensive" it is for the plant to produce their funky aroma. First, it takes a lot of energy to grow such a massive spike, called a spadix. Then, when prime time strikes, the plants begin to heat up, which releases the volatile organic compounds ​at the spike's base into the air—a process that requires even more energy.

"This is an enormous product that this plant is making," Pell says. Blooming requires so much energy that it can take the stink bombs anywhere from a year to over a decade to release their stench again. Though they don't bloom on a regular schedule, Pell notes, they tend to open around the late summer of the Northern Hemisphere. This is likely due to their Indonesian jungle roots, meaning the plants respond best to hot, humid weather to start preparing to bloom. "The hotter the better," Pell says.

Why people would willingly subject themselves to these plant's rotting smell is another fascinating topic in itself, as Erika Engelhaupt wrote for National Geographic in 2015. Similar to how many people enjoy the terror of a horror movie or the hotness of a chili pepper, it appears that experiencing a "safe threat" like a disgusting smell can be a thrill called "benign masochism."

If you're in for some stinky (but safe) fun, head on over to the U.S. Botanic Garden. They are extending their hours to make sure as many as possible can get a sniff. And if you don't live nearby, never fear: you can still catch the action online on the garden's live stream.

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