Raising a Stink: Morphy the Corpse Flower

November 20, 2016 — I’d arrived home at 2 am after a 10-hour drive. As exhausted as I was, I couldn’t sleep past 7 am for some reason, so I got up and started doing all the things one usually does after a week away from home—unpacking, washing clothes, cycle through the DVR, try to find the cat. Just before 9 am, I got the following email from a friend:

Hey!!! There's a corpse flower in bloom today at Dartmouth!! Visitors are welcome till noon!

A corpse flower bloom. An hour and a half from my house. I’d been waiting for this moment for about a decade.

Let’s talk giant, stinky flowers.

The scientific name for the corpse flower is Amorphophallus titanium. That basically means—earmuff your children, please—giant, misshapen penis. So it’s named after dead bodies and dicks (which was my original title for this article). People who want to avoid those connotations usually stick with “titan arum.” But the lurid names are pretty accurate. The plant is a green shaft wrapped at its base by a single, large leaf called a spathe. The shaft itself can grow as tall as ten feet, so it’s basically what the Jolly Green Giant hides under his leaf toga. When it blooms the spathe opens to reveal the deep purple interior of the leaf and that’s when the flower emits a strong smell like rotting meat to attract pollinating insects. Despite its name, it’s not a carnivorous plant—perhaps its only character flaw.

Corpse flowers are native to western Sumatra, so rare. And their blooms are even rarer...and impossible to predict. It takes around ten years for a corpse flower to open for the first time, and then it can take anywhere from a couple of years to another decade for its next bloom. And it only blooms for about 48 hours.

So seeing and smelling a corpse flower bloom is all about being at the right place at the right time.

And when my right place and right time came, I almost didn’t go. When I got the email, I was hitting the wall as far as exhaustion goes, and doing the math had me squeezing in to see it with only a little time to spare before the noon closing. It was also the last day of the bloom.

Lindsey called me an idiot and pushed me out the door.

Dartmouth College is in Hanover, New Hampshire, which is near—well, I assume you have no points of reference in the Live Free or Die state because why would you. But it’s right on the border of Vermont. The greenery the college is usually known for, of course, is ivy, but it so happened that in the greenhouse atop its Life Sciences Center they’ve been cultivating a monster. A monster named Morphy. You don’t have to name your daffodils, but you must name your corpse flower. That’s just the type of plant it is.

After a pleasant drive north up Interstate 89 during which I broke every single speed limit, I pulled into the parking lot of the building with less than an hour to go before closing time. More than 50 people were queued up outside the entrance. But I can’t call that bad. Something else that pushed me over the line that morning is that the bloom wasn’t in a big city, where you’ll find most of the institutions with the resources to throw at a ten-year botanical investment. Had I missed this opportunity my next chance would probably be in NYC, where I’d have to contend with massive NYC crowds.

But it was still technically a crowd. It took about an hour to make it into the building, along the various hallways inside, and to the pinch point: an elevator to the roof and the Dartmouth greenhouse that was smaller than the living room of a McMansion.

As soon as I exited the elevator, I smelled it.

The scent wasn’t strong, but it was palpable, sweet and meaty and, honestly, not really that foul. It might be because I’m writing this article two months after the experience, but I want to call it pleasant. What’s definite, though, is that I got used to it within 60 seconds and didn’t smell it at all even when I was inches from the flower. I’d later talk to one of the botanists on staff, and she told me she’d been watching Morphy through the night, and that’s when it was at its most smelly. At night, the flower actually heats up almost to the temperature of warm-blooded animals, which makes the smell much stronger. It also takes a lot of energy for a plant that size. Hence the rarity of the blooms.

A line snaked around the interior wall of the small greenhouse, so I dutifully took my place in it, even though every instinct in me wanted to trample people to get to the corpse flower. Quickly, though, it was my time. And even though the smell was disappointing, the plant itself wasn’t at all.

Morphy was about seven feet tall and 13 years old. It was potted in a comically large flower pot that gave it a few more feet of height. It’s first bloom was in 2011, so this was its second Pon farr.

A square hole had been sawn into its base like they were autopsying the corpse. The window revealed the tiny flowers hiding in that giant green shaft. Corpse flowers have both female and male flowers. The female flower bloom first, attracting insects, which then become trapped inside the spathe until the male flowers bloom later. On my visit, Morphy was sprouting male flowers, so it was near the end of its bloom. The botanist who was attending it at the time reached inside and plucked one to show us up close. It’s not something I would have called a flower had I seen it in the wild. It looked more like a fungus. And, actually, it looked like a tiny purple penis. It’s just that kind of plant, people.

Obviously, I didn’t want to leave Morphy. Hell, I wanted to take it home with me, strapped to the roof of my Civic like an alternate-universe Christmas tree, but the line of people behind me was backing up so, after a quick wave to the webcam through which my wife watched the proceedings back home (her dreams don’t involve phallic plants), I exited the building. On the way out the line was even longer and they were still letting visitors in, so it seemed that my blatant disregard for speed limits on the way up wasn’t necessary.

I can’t believe I almost skipped that experience, though. I’m a dummy a lot of the time. However, a big reason that the devil on my shoulder was so vocal is that these days, corpse flower blooms are more common across the country. That sounds ominous, like Triffids setting up for an attack, but the truth is that these amazing plants draw crowds with their smell more than they draw insects, so more and more facilities are raising them for that very reason. Although I guess we shouldn't rule out a Little Shop of Horrors-style botanical uprising.

So if you want to experience one yourself, just set up a Google Alert for “corpse flower.” And prep your dick jokes.

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