Garden Variety: Sometimes, you just have to stop and smell the corpse flower
It’s not often that one flower can pique the interest of so many people, especially considering that its main “attraction” is that it smells like a dead body. I’ll never understand humans.
A few weeks ago, Foster Botanical Gardens announced their corpse plant (also known as titan arum) was going to bloom. So because I’m held in the highest regard here, being808 sent me to investigate this smelly flower.
I visited the 13.5-acre garden on a Saturday, when the flower was predicted to be in full bloom. Even from the parking lot, entering the garden was almost like walking into a dreamscape. Upwind, a large tree was releasing lots of small cottony tufts – some kind of seed, I’m guessing. It was a windy day, so the air was filled with white, floating tufts. You could almost imagine an ethereal Enya song playing in the background.
The last time I visited the historic gardens was about 15 years ago, when I was in my friend’s wedding party and we had to stand in the mud for picture taking. I had forgotten how lush and peaceful it is there, despite being sandwiched between a busy freeway and downtown Honolulu.
Luckily, my husband agreed to come with me on my aromatic adventure (that way, I wouldn’t have to take a selfie of me and the plant). It was a bright, sunny day, so along the path to the greenhouse where the corpse plant was located, we stopped a few times to appreciate the scenery and take a few photos.
On the way, we heard snatches of conversation from other garden visitors and learned that the flower had not yet bloomed. I guess botany is not an exact science. Despite that, there was a line of people in the greenhouse, waiting to see the soon-to-bloom plant.
We were disappointed but still determined. So we returned the next day, when the flower would surely be in full bloom.
Unfortunately, Sunday was a gloomy, rainy day. No Enya music or floating cotton tufts this time, just the consistent patter of a light rain. We donned our rain jackets and picked our way back to the greenhouse.
Once again, we stood in line with the other corpse plant fans. When we got to the front, cameras and cell phones were snapping away, so we had to dart in and take our own shots and video.
The world’s largest flower (about 5 feet, 9 inches) stretched above my head and was like nothing I’ve ever seen. I found it strikingly beautiful in its unique way.
Then came the moment of truth: I leaned in for a whiff. At first, I couldn’t smell anything, although I was only a few steps away from the plant. I had to get really close, just a few inches from the rim. Then I smelled it – a sweet, sickly aroma. After all the hype, it wasn’t the horrible, overpowering stench that I expected, although it definitely was not pleasant. I overheard a guy saying that it smelled like a gecko died in your car. Yes, that’s it exactly.
According to an informational sheet handed out by Foster Garden volunteers, the corpse plant hails from the South Pacific. The flower of the corpse plant lasts only a few days, and can bloom as often as every few years or as seldom as every 10.
It emits a stench to attract certain carrion-eating beetles and flies, which pollinate the flower. The flower’s texture and deep red color also serve to imitate rotting meat to attract the insects.
As you’d expect, visiting the corpse flower left me with more questions. Luckily, I was able to reach a Foster Garden horticulturist, Scot Mitamura, who filled me in via email.
If you look at a photo of the blooming plant, you can see a large hole near the bottom. It’s not a naturally occurring hole. Scot said the hole was cut by garden staff to reveal the male and female flowers.
Mitamura added that the scent actually comes from the bottom of the flower. During my visit, I smelled the top of the flower, so this means I was smelling the wrong end. In my defense, it would have been impolite to smell the bottom of the flower.
“The fragrance is the strongest on the first night and can be smelled from Vineyard Boulevard,” Mitamura said. This means the scent reached full force several hours after my first visit and was already waning when I returned the next day. He added, “When I photograph it at night, it’s so strong, I need to keep rubbing my face and need to pull away to get a breath of air.”
Don’t be disappointed that you missed the bloom of the corpse plant. Mitamura said Foster Botanical Garden actually has 10 corpse plants and he wouldn’t be surprised if another one or two blooms this year. If you want to stay updated with what’s happening at the garden, check out its Facebook page.
I was too embarrassed to ask Mitamura if the corpse plant can talk. Obviously it can’t, because it’s a plant. But when I gazed at the tall flower, I couldn’t help but think of the man-eating talking plant in “The Little Shop of Horrors.” I fully expected to hear, “Feed me, Seymour!”
Although my assignment was to meet one of the smelliest plants in the world, my visit to Foster Botanical Garden allowed me to appreciate and reconnect with a local historical treasure.