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.