It was like it was meant to be. Three years ago, I wrote about a rare corpse flower called ‘Stinky’ that was blooming at the Denver Botanic Gardens. This was the first time the 15-year old, putrid-smelling plant had flowered since 2007. The event made national news because up until then Stinky had been in a vegetative state, producing a single leaf, but no flower for almost a decade.
I never saw the 2015 bloom, which lasted for just 24 hours, making the viewing of it nearly impossible unless you lived in the area. So imagine my surprise when this weekend, I was passing through Denver only to discover that Stinky was flowering again! And on the very same day that I happened to be in the city. I hopped in a cab to go check out the action.
The Denver Botanic Gardens, one of my favorite gardens to visit
A carrion flower
Corpse flower or Titan arum (Amorphophallus titanium) is one of the oldest and biggest species of flowering plants in the world. Blooming just once every few years and sometimes as rarely as 10, it is known for its putrid odor and gigantic, single flower. Titan arum is what is referred to as a ‘carrion’ flower, or showy, stinking flower that emits a smell like rotting flesh.
Although native to the rainforests of Sumatra, corpse flowers are a relatively rare occurrence around the world. There are only about 100 known specimens in cultivation. The first ever recorded flowering of one was at the New York Botanical Gardens in 1937. The Denver Botanic Garden acquired theirs in 2007 where it remained in a vegetative state until 2015 when it suddenly produced a single, awe-inspiring bloom.
Stinky, next to his growth chart
At the Gardens, staff refer to their specimen as ‘beloved’ and that appears to be true, as evidenced by the spontaneous smiles upon the many visitors’ faces. Friendly volunteers pointed me to the Marnie Pavilion where Stinky is housed. I joined a line of people pinching their noses and waiting their turn to get up close and personal with the unusual flower while above us a webcam recorded the plant’s every move over the course of 48 hours.
What makes corpse flowers so unusual?
In its vegetative state, the corpse flower has a single, un-branched inflorescence (a cluster of flowers arranged on a single stem) that resembles a tree trunk. It is considered to be the largest inflorescence in the world. The corpse flower’s stem can reach over 10 feet in height and measure 3 to 4 feet in diameter.
Green and white speckled stem of corpse flower
In its non-flowering years, the stem produces a single, gigantic leaf that branches into a complex array of tiny leaflets. The leaflets form a canopy much like a small tree and can persist for up to 12 to 18 months.
Corpse flower stem and ‘leaf’ in its native habitat
But in its flowering year (which is unpredictable), the corpse flower produces a single bloom that it was one of the world’s largest, sometime measuring as large as 6 to 8 feet. The massive bell-shaped bract, which looks like a circle of petals, is bright green on the outside and deep red on the inside with a deeply furrowed texture. Rising from within is a dull yellow floral spike that some liken to a loaf of French bread.
At the base of the spike are two rows of small, orange-red flowers. (You have to get awfully close to Stinky to see these.)
A close-up of Stinky’s bloom
During bloom, the tip of the floral spike gradually warms until it is approximately the temperature of a human body. This helps the ‘fragrance’ disperse.
A pair of Titan arums in Sumatra ca. 1900-40 showing leaf (left) and flower (right)/Photo courtesy Tropenmuseum
The death of the corpse flower is a quick one. The bract folds inwards, then the flower spike topples over and shrivels up. The whole process, from initial flowering to demise, occurs within a 24- to 48-hour period.
A collapsed corpse flower
A scent like no other
Variously compared to the smell of rotting meat, eggs, fish (or flesh), dirty diapers, and/or Limburger cheese, the corpse flower’s fragrance is, well, unforgettable.
Why is it so stinky? It turns out the flower’s main pollinators are carrion-eating beetles and flesh flies who love the smell of rotting meat. To attract them, the plant emits its aroma in stages, gradually intensifying its scent over the hours until it has whipped its pollinators into a carnivorous frenzy. The deep red color and texture of the bract, which resemble that of meat, further contribute to the illusion.
And yes, Stinky was pretty awful smelling — a strange mix of dirty socks and rotting cheese permeated the conservatory. (I can’t attest to the corpse smell, having never encountered one.) The plant was simply displayed on a metal table next to a growth chart labelled #StinkyDBGReturns.
According to the Denver Post, over 12,000 people visited Stinky in 2015, making him one popular flower. (This year’s numbers weren’t available at the time of this posting.) I lucked out and waited only a short time to see the Gardens’ prize specimen. If you’re ever in the area on the next day Stinky decides to bloom, its definitely worth the trip.
The Denver Botanic Gardens are located at 1007 York Street in Denver, Colorado. Best to buy tickets on line first if you’re planning to see Stinky.