SAN DIEGO — By 12:30 p.m. Oct. 25, the long, snaking line of visitors outside the San Diego Botanic Garden had grown to nearly 200 people, at least one of whom admitted to driving from Texas overnight just to see the ephemeral bloom of the rare Amorphophallus titanum plant.
Only a handful of public gardens in the United States have these exotic Sumatran jungle plants that are better known as the “corpse plant,” thanks to their enormous flowers, which at peak bloom emit a putrid and pulsing odor of rotting flesh. After a monthlong growth cycle, the spathe, or the petal-like sheath around the flower’s spadix (a beige, fleshy spike), began folding back around 3 p.m. Oct. 31.
Horticulture Manager John Clements was one of several garden employees who stayed overnight Sunday to photograph, measure, study and hand-pollinate the flowers at the base of the spadix. The bloom lasts just 48 hours and the plant is unlikely to bloom again for three to four years.
Clements said the plant’s scent is designed by nature to attract carrion beetles and flesh flies from miles away to help with the pollinating process. The scent peaks during the nighttime hours of 9 p.m. to 3 a.m., when the air is still and the aroma can travel more easily.
He said that on Sunday night, the plant’s odor grew stronger and more toxic-smelling as midnight approached. Garden workers experienced sore throats, burning eyes and a metallic taste in their mouths. The chemical reaction that creates the acidic aroma also heats up the flower’s spadix in a process known as thermogenesis. In the hours after the flower opened on Halloween, Clements said they measured the spadix’s temperature rising from 75 to 97 degrees at peak bloom and smell.
“It started out like a good French cheese, stinky but delightful,” Clements said of the smell. “Then it moved on to adolescent boys’ socks. Then it was junior high school gymnasium, followed by full-on rotten fish. Finally, it moved all the way to a rotting corpse smell that was so thick and heavy you could cut it with a knife.”
By Monday morning, the 6-foot-tall flower remained in full, glorious bloom with its blood-red petal spathe slowly darkening to a deep maroon, but its smell was more muted. Every few minutes, a wave of odor would drift from the plant. The reduced scent didn’t seem to bother the garden visitors who began queuing up to see the plant around 8:30 a.m. Monday.
To control crowds, all tickets to the garden were sold online by timed entry. By Monday morning, every slot was sold out through Tuesday evening, when the last of the bloom will have wilted and collapsed. By then, more than 5,000 people will have cycled through the garden’s Dickinson Family Education Conservatory since Sunday.
One man from Texas read about the plant’s bloom on Oct. 31 afternoon and drove out to see it by noon the next day. He wouldn’t give his name because he was “playing hooky” from work, but he said it was worth the drive.
Virtually everyone who visited the plant took photos of it or posed with it for a selfie, then they leaned forward to sniff the air. Those who got a brief whiff of the plant described it variously as a dirty diaper, a pile of unwashed laundry, spoiled hamburger meat or “eau de dog poop.”
For visitors who want more than a photo to remember the prehistoric-looking bloom, the garden’s gift shop is selling corpse flower stickers, coffee mugs and face masks.
The Hutchinson family of Oceanside were more interested in the look of the bloom than its smell. Retirees Robert and Maria Hutchinson were so fascinated by the corpse plant that they recently bought a year-round garden membership so they could visit the plant several times. On Monday morning, they returned with their adult son, Rob, who said he was fascinated by the look and size of the flower.
Another corpse plant that’s a sibling to the one now in bloom, is just starting its flower-growing process and should bloom around the end of November. The Richardsons plan to come back again for that one, too.
“All I can say is the amazing petals are an unbelievable color,” Robert Huchinson said. “I want to come back and see this again.”