August 10, 2006
Brooklyns Bloom, a Sight (and Stench) Not to Be Missed
By MICHAEL WILSON
The smell of death everywhere, so thick and strong it makes eyes water, and yet the curious will line up around the corner for a look. Ah, Brooklyn!
A bizarre, stomach-churning and, for some, unprecedented display is not the scene of a sensational crime, but far from it. The long, hot room at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, usually occupied by a stately bonsai museum, has been cleaned out for the macabre main event, a rare blooming of the Amorphophallus titanum.
The species last bloomed in New York in 1939 in the Bronx. The botanic garden has kept one behind closed doors for 10 years, until now, as the plant completes a remarkable growth spurt of seven inches a day and prepares to flower and unleash its pollen as early as tomorrow. And then the reason will become clear for its grim nickname: the corpse flower.
"People will say, ÂDo you have a dead animal in here?Â " said Patrick J. Cullina, vice president of horticulture and facilities at the botanic garden, who has worked with similar plants of different species. The literature posted beside the harmless-looking plant describes what to expect, the "revolting smell of putrefying meat."
There was no smell on Wednesday. A trickle of visitors gazed up yesterday at the cream-colored, rigid spathe, the fast-growing spike that has taken over the plant, resembling a giant squash and now bigger than a manÂs leg. Days ago, it burst horror-movie style through the green leaves that wrapped it. More visitors are expected as the bloom approaches, and the flowerÂs progress, but not its smell, can be tracked from the gardenÂs Web site, www.bbg.org.
The corpse flower took another dramatic turn toward blooming on Thursday afternoon, as the large, green leafs began to fold back and fall away, revealing the maroon undersides that are colored to resemble an animal. As of 3:12 p.m., a very faint odor was detected in the room, said Leeann Lavin, a spokeswoman for the garden. "Right now, there are two flies on it," she said.
In 1937 and again in 1939, thousands turned out to watch bloomings in the Bronx. According to The New York Times, the odor "almost downed" newspaper reporters, and was described by an assistant curator at the botanical garden there as "a cross between ammonia fumes and hydrogen sulphide, suggestive of spoiled meat or rotting fish." It became the official flower of the Bronx, until 2000, and it seems the bizarre specimen Â why the heck does a flower smell like bad meat? Â can still draw a crowd. More than 10,000 people visited a blooming corpse flower at the University of Connecticut in Storrs in 2004.
The flower was first discovered in Sumatra, its native terrain, in 1878 by Odoardo Beccari. It was an immediate sensation. An English artist assigned to illustrate the plant is said to have become ill from the odor, and governesses forbade young women from gazing upon its indelicate form. (Its formal name ends in "phallus" for good reason.)
It was discovered that the stench is vital to its reproduction, designed to attract tiny sweat bees and carrion beetles that live on carcasses. The insects carry pollen to other corpse flowers. "This is a very specific assignment, essentially," Mr. Cullina said. "Some flowers are very insect-specific about what they want."
During blooming, the strongest odor lasts about eight hours, but the smell lingers for two or three days.
The botanic gardenÂs plant was donated in 1996 from a collection in North Carolina. Mark Fisher, foreman of conservatories at the garden, took over its care two years later, when it was just a little plant in a box near a fire escape. Once a year, a leaf shot out of it and rose six feet, but no flowers.
"We had a cold snap and it turned yellow. I was like, ÂOh my God.Â I was really worried," said Mr. Fisher, who, like many at the garden, has taken to calling the plant Baby. He moved it to a warmer spot, and the plant came back, most strikingly, last winter, with a 12-foot leaf that opened like an umbrella. The leaf grew so high it tipped the plant one night, and nearly broke off but for Mr. FisherÂs quick thinking and a hastily built splint. In hindsight, Mr. Fisher said, itÂs clear the huge leaf was to absorb massive amounts of nutrients for the big act to follow, the blooming.
Employee "babysitters" will watch the plant around the clock, in case the blooming begins in the dead of night. Air masks will be passed out to the security staff.
Dr. Randolph Schutz, a psychotherapist and amateur botanist, dropped by for a look yesterday. "I must say, I donÂt smell much at the moment," he said, but he plans to return throughout the weekend. "ItÂs a once-in-a-lifetime experience."
For a less refined sort, the plant may offer another opportunity. Now would be a pretty good time to dump a dead body in the botanic garden.
Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company