News & Politics

A Corpse Flower Is Blooming in DC, And It Smells Like Death

Get yourself to the U.S. Botanic Garden for a whiff of rotting flesh from the world's stinkiest flower

The 2013 titan arum in full bloom. Photograph courtesy of the US Botanical Garden.

There’s something rotten in DC, and it’s not what you’re thinking: the U.S. Botanic Garden’s corpse flower (known scientifically as amorphophallus titanum, or titan arum) will likely bloom sometime this weekend, unfurling its massive purplish-red petals to unleash a stench that has been described as a combination of rotting flesh and “that odor you see at the bottom of a dumpster on a hot summer day.”

The Garden is currently livestreaming the flower’s progress. Though specialists anticipate it will bloom beginning Saturday, corpse flowers are notoriously hard to forecast. “Not only are they huge and stinky, they’re really unpredictable,” says Devin Dotson, Public Affairs and Exhibits Specialist at the Botanic Garden. “They each have their own personality, if you will.” To accommodate the plant’s whims, the Botanic Garden will be open until 8pm through Sunday, July 31, and until 11pm when the flower is in full bloom, which should be sometime before Tuesday, August 2. Daily updates on the flower’s progress will be posted on the Botanic Garden’s website.

DC was last graced with the odor of a corpse flower in 2013, when the Botanic Garden hosted another blooming plant. This summer’s flower is a different one, a six-year-old stalk that began its life as an offshoot of a parent plant owned by the Garden. (“It’s a native DC resident, rare as those are,” notes Dotson.) The species originally comes from the humid jungles of Sumatra, where the plants use their unparalleled stench to pollinate themselves by fooling flies into thinking they’re landing on dead animal carcasses. It takes years for the plants to store up enough energy to open up—and even then, many fail to produce a stinky bloom.

But this summer’s hot weather has led to what Dotson calls “the year of the corpse flower.” Possibly the only living thing enjoying itself in DC right now, the Botanic Garden’s plant has lately been growing at a rate of about seven inches a day, reaching a height of over five feet on Monday. This week, three other corpse flowers are also blooming: one at the New York Botanical Garden and two at Marie Selby Botanical Gardens in Sarasota, Florida. Botanists in the three locations will be scraping pollen samples as soon as their flowers open, which will then be overnighted to the other blooming flowers for pollination.

Other gardens sometimes name their corpse flowers—Chicago’s goes by Sprout, Marie Selby’s is Seymour—but Dotson says the Botanic Garden staff don’t think their flower needs a name to give it a personality. “We like using the real name, titan arum, so people know what they’re looking at.”

Given the rock-star status of the corpse flower, the Botanic Garden expects lines of up to an hour when the plant goes into bloom. Will it be worth the wait? “It’s hard to know in advance how stinky it’s going to be,” Dotson says. “This plant is bigger than we expected, so I’m kind of thinking it might be a nice one.” Nice for a carrion fly, that is.