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Lure Of Flower's Putrid Essence Draws Crowd


A crowd formed today at the U.S. Botanic Garden here in Washington, D.C. It's a place to see beautiful flowers and usually ones that smell fantastic. But today, one exotic specimen on display was the opposite of that. It's the titan arum and NPR's Allison Keyes tells us people flocked to the greenhouse in hopes of getting a rare whiff of the flower's putrid essence.

ALLISON KEYES, BYLINE: From the line and the excited faces of titan arum fans hurrying down the path to the door, you'd think The Beatles were here.

ALISON MILLIGAN: We don't smell anything yet, but we're taking deep breaths.

KEYES: Alison Milligan, a master gardener at the University of Maryland, brought her environmental science major son, Kyle, and she's psyched for the giant flower and its legendary smell.

MILLIGAN: It's better than a comet, right, for me.

KYLE: We heard it smells really bad, so we're kind of here to just smell it.

KEYES: High school students Alexis Hernandez(ph) and Ariana Simmons(ph) were attracted by the hype. Who wouldn't want to see a flower that looks like a giant finger jutting straight up wearing a tasteful frilly collar gilded with a rich maroon on the inside.

ALEXIS HERNANDEZ: Yeah, I want to see the smell and I want to see how pretty it is. And since it's so ancient, it's like a time thing.

KEYES: The titan arum was first discovered in 1878. It's native to the tropical rainforest on the island of Sumatra in Indonesia. This one is eight feet tall and weighs about 250 pounds. The so-called corpse flower smells so bad so it can attract bugs to pollinate it. Fans have been watching a live stream for a week waiting for it to bloom.

It finally did last night. Some who had been waiting with flared nostrils now had furrowed brows, like Ariana Simmons.

ARIANA SIMMONS: It doesn't smell.

KEYES: Clearly, there is consternation.

SIMMONS: I just wanted it to stink. That's all I wanted.

KEYES: But Simmons and her friend, Alexis Hernandez, say at least it's big and pretty.

HERNANDEZ: So we're kind of disappointed, but it's okay.

BILL MCLAUGHLIN: Oh, man, you missed it.

KEYES: Bill McLaughlin is the plant curator with the U.S. Botanic Garden and did get to smell the titan before the stomach-turning aroma faded away.

MCLAUGHLIN: I couldn't eat dinner till about 11:00 p.m. after I left.

KEYES: You couldn't have saved us some of the smell?

MCLAUGHLIN: Oh, if only we could bottle it up.

KEYES: But it opened around 6:00 last night and he says it smelled really strong by 7:30.

MCLAUGHLIN: It really does smell like a dead animal carcass.

KEYES: And then, the odor dissipated in the large room. A disappointed Stephanie Kirkendall(ph) has been coming here from Maryland every day for a week and stood in front of the plant looking a little sad.

STEPHANIE KIRKENDALL: I'm really here for the smell. Not the flower, I want the smell.

KEYES: So you're all about Amorphophallus.

KIRKENDALL: Yes. Well, yeah. Yes. I never looked at it that way, but yeah, it is a beautiful plant.

KEYES: And she's in denial about having missed the aroma.

KIRKENDALL: I'll come back this afternoon and I'll come back tomorrow and I'll just keep coming back until I get a whiff.

KEYES: If you just want a glimpse instead, you better hurry. Titan arum only stays open for 24 to 48 hours before it collapses. Allison Keyes, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Allison Keyes is an award-winning journalist with almost 20 years of experience in print, radio, and television. She has been reporting for NPR's national desk since October 2005. Her reports can be heard on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition Sunday.