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July 29, 2010

Smell of Rotting Flesh Attracting Crowds in Houston

by Greg Flakus

Over the past few weeks, thousands of people flocked to the Museum of Natural Science in Houston, to see - and smell - a rare plant from the rain forests of Sumatra, in Indonesia.  The unlikely attraction, an odor like that of a rotting corpse that the flower sent out as it bloomed.  This is only the 29th time one of these rare flowers has bloomed in the United States, and the museum stayed open 24 hours a day until the full bloom occurred.  

This is the Amorphophallus Titanum, also known as the "corpse flower," because of the foul odor it produces when it blooms.

Crowds started forming at Houston's Museum of Natural Science in early July, as people young and old came to see the plant museum staffers had nicknamed "Lois."

The progress of the bloom was checked closely by museum horticulturalist Zac Stayton.

"What makes it so rare is that it is highly endangered in the wild, in Sumatra, and it is so hard to get to bloom in cultivation," said Stayton.  "Some people have had these for 15 or 20 years and never been able to get one to bloom, so we are really lucky here to have one."

The ugly stench that starts emanating from the plant as it begins to bloom is actually an example of nature's false advertising. In this case, Zac Stayton says, the flies and beetles drawn to the plant are the victims of a vegetative con game.

"They fly to it thinking they can lay their eggs there and it will be a good place for their eggs to hatch out and eat the rotting meat, but they get tricked into just pollinating the flower," explained Stayton.

But no trick was needed to draw people here to see the plant.  They had their eyes - and nostrils - wide open.

Many people even kept track of Lois online, through a 24-hour-a-day camera feed on the Museum's web site.

Since the space was small and climate-controlled, staffers allowed only small groups in for a few minutes at a time, which was enough to cure most people's olfactory curiosity.

Museum staffer Nancy Greig had to spend several hours in the smelly room.

"I think you get used to it after a while," said Greig.  "Once in a while it will get worse, so then it is a little bit nauseating, but it is actually fine, it is not too bad, I am used to it."

After several hours of stinky glory, Lois' bloom wilted, the smell subsided and the crowds moved on to see other, less odorous, museum attractions.