Of flowers and corpses
This weekend, an intense smell enveloped New York Botanical Garden visitors (and another such event just took place in Washington, DC). For the second time in nearly 80 years an enormous rare flower bloomed in the garden emitting the strong and unsettling smell of rotting carrion. The titan arum (Amorphophallus titanum) belongs to a group of "corpse flowers" or "carrion flowers" as they are aptly referred to, that includes the rafflesias, stapelias and some of the bulbophillum orchids. The scent of rotting flesh they emit attracts carrion pollinators like flies and beetles .
The titan became known in the US in 1879, a number of years after the discovery of another carrion flower species, a parasitic bloom of significant size and even more unforgettable stench growing in the island of Sumatra, which they named Rafflesia arnoldii in 1818. Italian naturalist Odoardo Beccari was the first to describe and name the Amorphophallus titanum, which he discovered in his travels in Sumatra in 1878, forever securing his historical legacy. Beccari was known among his contemporaries (Charles Darwin among others) for his botanical and zoological expeditions and discoveries in Sumatra, New Guinea Odoardo Beccari (1843 – 1920)
and Thailand but his lasting claim to fame is tied to
the Amorphophallus titanum seeds he brought to the Kew Royal Botanical Gardens, the first to have a plant of the species among their collection. His botanical studies and material are preserved in the Museum of Natural History of the University of Florence. He is also commemorated by a more pleasantly scented chianti created by his descendants.
The Times (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) · Mon, Jan 13, 1879
The Vermont Watchman (Montpelier, Vermont) · Wed, Feb 29, 1888
The first descriptions of the plant reflect awe at its incredible size, but make little mention of the stench it becomes known for. Presumably because of its long blooming cycle, the stench was not experienced by westerners till the titan's first bloom abroad in the Kew Gardens in 1889.
"But oh, the horror of its smell, which filled the spacious green house to overflowing and compelled even the enthusiasts to flee hastily with handkerchief to nose —a stink such as all the condemned fish of a great city would hesitate to emit." From "A Floral Giant: A Miracle in Beauty and A terror in Perfume",
Evening Star, Washington, DC · Sat, Sep 14, 1889 · p. 11
"IT'S NOT A NOSEGAY. This New York reporter had a bloomin' sweet idea when sent out to report on the first Amorphophallus Titanum to bloom in the United States. He equipped himself with a gas mask to escape more-than-awful-odor with which the blooming plant filled the Botanical Gardens, where the stupefying event took place." Harrisburg Telegraph (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania) · Fri, Jun 11, 1937
Just like this past weekend, hundreds of visitors came to see the titan bloom in 1937.
Similarly, most of the 100+ titan arum bloomings on US ground have been well attended and written about. What is it about this gigantic flower with an admittedly unpleasant smell that makes its blooming such a sought-after experience? Is it its notable size? At the 5-12 foot range the amorphophallus is the largest unbranched inflorescence in the plant kingdom. Is it its singular beauty? While the color of its petals, a deep saturated red or purple hue is magnificent, the flower itself is arguably strange and inelegant— its name means shapeless penis after all.
The Morning News (Wilmington, Delaware) 15 Apr 1961, Sat • Main Edition • Page 23
The News Journal (Wilmington, Delaware), 15 Apr 1961, Sat • Main Edition • Page 27 Longwood gardens had an titan arum bloom event in 1961. They currently have a growing plant in their Tropical Terrace exhibit.
What about its smell? The flower emits a very strong smell of rotting flesh in the first 3-6 hrs of its full bloom. Its function is to attract nearby carrion flies, beetles and other pollinators, including butterflies that will carry its seed and propagate the species. The scent has been described as that of rotting fish, forgotten gym socks, decomposing carcasses in the hot summer sun, and decaying roadkill. Unlike the arum's early 20th century visitors, modern garden-goers are less likely to have experienced the arresting smell of a decomposing corpse. Could it be that the attraction of visiting the flower rests on the conscious or unconscious desire to experience death and decay at a safe distance, in a more socially acceptable and palatable way? Could all the interest in this singular botanical event be masking our tentative and shy curiosity about death? Of course, a lot of the hype around the blooming can easily be attributed to the once-in-a-lifetime nature of the event, though there has been a recent increase in the frequency of titan arum specimens blooming across the country. But would they be so popular were the cadaverous smell absent? Or if the corpse flower moniker did not evoke the specter of death?
"Could all the interest in this singular
botanical event be masking our tentative
and shy curiosity about death?"
Despite the fair assumption that the flower owes its smell to the chemical compounds associated with decaying flesh, cadaverine and putrescine, there is a different chemical cocktail at play.The smell compounds are partially sulfuric in nature, namely "dimethyl trisulfide (like limburger cheese), dimethyl disulfide, trimethylamine (rotting fish), isovaleric acid (sweaty socks), benzyl alcohol (sweet floral scent), phenol (like Chloraseptic), and indole (like mothballs)". Why would anyone want to smell such a repugnant combination of odors? One theory posits that people want to experience such unpleasantness out of a form of benign masochism. Is that all there is to it? Even though the flower actually smells more like rotting fish and gym socks, press and visitors alike still insist "it smells of death". The unspoken expectation is that the titan smells like a human or mammal corpse, promising its admirers a little sliver of mortality from a safe and acceptable distance. Those who embrace their fascination with death have to face criticism from society, but the botanically curious can easily avoid that by attributing their interest to the "corpse flower" to its rarity and size. Above: Hugo de Vries with Amorphophallus Titanum. New York Botanical Garden, 1937 [source]
What does a decomposing human cadaver truly smell like? Most westerners don't know how to answer that question. Our sanitized approach to death means that under typical circumstances, we will not ever get to smell the odor of even early stage human decomposition. The smell is repulsive to instinctually warn humans of danger, even though we have little to fear from the dead. However, studying it, analyzing and even synthesizing it can be very useful, especially for those who are in the profession of finding or recovering human cadavers, like cadaver dogs and disaster workers. Yet "odor mortis" is quite elusive to research as each cadaver has its own special mix of odorous chemical compounds, depending on its owner's diet, fat/muscle composition, as well as the circumstances and environment of death, as researchers from the University of Leuven found out. Ultimately, curiosity about death is a healthy and an evolutionarily important tendency. If we are not curious about death, we stand less of a chance of avoiding it, and when it's unavoidable, accepting it. Let's embrace our curiosity, even while using botany as a vessel.
“since the thing perhaps is to eat flowers and not to be afraid” ― E.E. Cummings, Complete Poems, 1904-1962