Near the Capitol Dome, the Stench of Rot and Death

What it’s like to see the corpse flower

Joshua Roberts / Reuters

Amorphophallus titanum—amorpho, meaning misshapen; titanum, meaning giant; phallus, meaning phallus. Its common name is titan arum, but even the horticulturalists wandering around its enormous green protrusion on Wednesday called it the corpse flower, a more-or-less direct translation of the Indonesian name bunga bangkai. (Carrion flower would also suffice.) “Also known as the stinky plant,” says the official U.S. Botanical Gardens website.

Poor titan arum, doomed to judgey names. Even its binomial title means Lumpy the Mega Penis.

Lumpy was exhibited at the U.S. National Botanical Gardens early this week, unmissable in the front lobby, surrounded by ferns and beneath a roof of glass and iron. Just a block from the Capitol Building, on the House side.

Lumpy’s pale spadix, the same pastel-green shade as unwrapped corncobs, towered several feet above everything else. This protusion was swaddled in a frilly, fibrous leaf, accented with hints of deep magenta, that reminded me of bok choy and kale. Though many tiny flowers hide inside the cavity created by its leaf, the corpse flower seemed like a simple plant when viewed from the ground. It was too pleasingly geometric, too childlike, to be Seussian.

On Wednesday afternoon, I waited behind a family from Alexandria for the chance to see the titan arum. Right after work, the line exceeded 300 people (we carefully studied the Corpse Flower fact cards handed out by volunteers), but we were lucky. On Tuesday night, thousands of people had showed up to see Lumpy. Washingtonians, Virginians, tourists from the continents, diplomats who heard about the bloom. The conservatory stayed open to 11 p.m. to squeeze them all in, and it still had to turn folks away who had been waiting for hours.

The corpse flower is a regional news event because it does not happen very often. Though a corpse flower burst into efflorescence just last month in New York, a single titan arum might only erupt two or three times in its life. A corpse flower has not bloomed in the Washington area since 2013, even though the National Botanical Garden cares for 11 different flowers at its off-site facility.

The bloom also does not last very long. This particular plant unsheathed itself midday on Tuesday. As of publishing time, you can still see it on the live stream, but its priapic energy will not last 48 hours. By Wednesday evening, the stalk had already faded some, yellowing and collapsing near the top. The leaf had folded up around the stalk, as if in embarrassment. By the end of the week, the whole stalk will wither and fall over.

People tend to act with haste around the corpse flower. As soon as folks made it to the front of the line and into the lobby, they pulled out their phone, photographing the flower and with it all the other raised arms of the onlookers. Couples wormed their way to the front to take a selfie with the flower. Others chattered amiably with the polo-wearing horticulturists standing nearby, who answered questions about the plant.

It was so nice that all these people had come to see… a plant, I heard one of the workers say. And it was nice.

At the front of the scrum, behind a velvet rope, Mara Menahan was painting the titan arum. She has illustrated plants for the National Botanical Gardens for the past year, but she has been painting this corpse flower everyday at 5 p.m. for the past few weeks.

“I had to draw it every night at the same time, because the difference between the morning and the day was sometimes several inches,” said Menahan. In the months before it blooms, the corpse flower can grow 10 centimeters per day.  She had seen it change—not fast enough to watch, but quickly enough to notice over hours and days.

“When it was first coming up, it used to be enveloped in these things called bracts. As the flower develops, the bracts die off and fall away. They took them away now—but they had changed into this beautiful silvery purple color at the edges, and as they died they’ve become papery and silver and brown and purple,” she said.

“There’s a lot of blue in it,” she said. The rouge in the leaves only came in over the last several days.

By the time I got there, the plant’s appearance was its most mesmerizing property. It had already stopped smelling. When the corpse flower opens, it emits the odor of rotting vegetables. After a couple hours, it gets worse. “The smell of uncooked meat in a dumpster on a sunny day,” was how I heard one horticulturalist describe it.

The smell and the height are what makes it noticeable. The corpse flower has the largest “unbranched inflorescence” in the world—a measurement that encompasses both the spadix, the tall green protuberance; and the spathe, the kale-like leaves surrounding it. (The largest inflorescence in the world is branched; it also lives in Indonesia and Sumatra.) The corpse flower, in other words, really is one giant flower, and its spadix is similar to the type of structures that hang out of petals in Georgia O’Keefe paintings.

Just an oddly colored plant with a smelly reputation and a goofy name, next door to a Congress that represents 320 million people. I have lived in D.C. long enough to know that the Capitol Building is itself a frenetic and caustic place,
but that it is ringed with sites of unusual attentiveness. A block from the dome, to the northeast, the justices sit in ritually choreographed solemnity. A block to the southeast, the Library of Congress and the Folger Shakespeare Library help scholars on their faltering way. And to the southwest, on one Wednesday afternoon in August, some strangers paid closer attention to a plant that was too odd to be a fantasy.