Even up close, the titan arum doesn’t look real. But I didn’t wait in a long line outside the U.S. Botanic Garden just to see the plant. I wanted to smell it — would the “corpse flower” live up to its name?
Not that I’ve ever smelled a corpse and could compare that. But I’ve encountered enough other awful scents (trash rotting in a heat wave, burned brakes on a Metro train, a New York City sidewalk) to know that this one was not too bad. A fellow visitor said that the scent reminded him of fish rotting on the seashore. I got a whiff of really bad body odor (which could have been just really bad b.o. — everyone is pretty gross and smelly this time of year in D.C.). It was much less than I was expecting, and less than others expected as well. Perhaps the plant had already dispensed the nastiest of its smells before I got there.
The titan arum employs its rotten scent as a lure for insect pollinators. Researchers have determined that a chemical called dimethyl trisulfide is responsible for the smell. Dimethyl trisulfide is also produced during the cooking of onions and leeks, as well as in the early decomposition of a human body; so corpse flower is actually an accurate term.
For me, though, it was the flower’s size — eight feet tall — that was really amazing. The plant looked more like a prop for a sci-fi movie than something you’d find here on earth. But the flower can be found growing in the wild, in the forests of Sumatra in Indonesia. And I suppose that, compared to the tame vegetation around Washington, Sumatra would appear to be other-worldly.
One weird thing I discovered today, though, is that titan arum isn’t the plant’s real name. It’s scientific name is Amorphophallus titanum. (The genus name means “misshapen phallus.”) The name titan arum was made up by famed BBC presenter David Attenborough — he didn’t think that saying Amorphophallus made for appropriate television and came up with the alternative. The name stuck.
Image by the author