Stinky ‘corpse flower’ draws flies -- and visitors -- to Madison’s Olbrich Botanical Gardens

Instead of being met by rose- and desert-scented orchids that line the entrance to the Bolz conservatory, visitors to Olbrich Botanical Garden s’ glass pyramid conservatory Thursday afternoon kept their noses tightly plugged against a rare stench that overpowered the more fragrant plants nearby.

One of the world’s largest flowers — a 6-foot-tall “corpse flower,” or Titan arum — drew crowds of people despite its infamously unpleasant odor, its smell enhanced by the humid air.

“It smells like hot garbage!” Olbrich Gardens member Josh Dilley said of the huge flower encompassed by a pleated purple and green umbrella leaf at its base.

Dilley and his family came to the tropical indoor garden along with flocks of other visitors, all waiting to smell and take pictures next to the foul-smelling plant.

The Titan arum blooms for a short window of 24 to 36 hours every seven to 10 years. The flower’s nickname, “corpse flower,” comes from its signature stench of rotting flesh.

This particular flower last bloomed in October 2009, reaching 15 feet tall. This year the flower has grown about 4 to 5 inches a day starting June 1, slowing to around 3 inches a day shortly before flowering.

The flower has been named “Mori,” the Latin word for death, after Olbrich hosted a Facebook naming contest.

One of four corpse flowers at Olbrich, this 16-year-old plant was started by seed from UW-Madison’s “Big Bucky” Titan arum. Consuelo Lopez, an Olbrich volunteer and professor emeritus at UW-Madison, remembered lines of students that wrapped around South Hall and down Bascom Hill when that Titan arum first bloomed in the university’s Botany Greenhouse in June 2001. Some students even wore T-shirts to commemorate the event.

“We’d stand in line 45 minutes just to get in,” Lopez said.

When Lopez got the call from Olbrich that its titan flower was blooming, she didn’t hesitate to come see — and smell — it for herself.

“We got a call and I dropped what I was doing,” she said. “It’s just an amazing thing.”

For others, the putrid smell reminds them of less-pleasant memories.

“It smells like a bad day at work,” said visitor Steve Lemberg.

Native to the Southeast Asian island of Sumatra, the Titan arum may bloom only four or five times in its 40-year lifespan. For each bloom, the flower must store its energy for up to seven to 10 years. Its powerful stench is used to attract carrion beetles and flies when it’s ready to reproduce, according to an Olbrich summary.

The first Titan flower to bloom in the United States was cared for by the New York Botanical Garden in 1937, according to the UW Department of Botany.

Olbrich will be offering extended hours on Friday, from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., to allow more people to experience the botanical phenomenon while it’s still in bloom.

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