July 10, 2013 at 1:27 PM ET
A flower that smells like “a dead body lying in Florida for two weeks” attracted some 5,000 people to the National Botanic Garden of Belgium outside of Brussels this week, ten times their usual draw.
The plant, a striking violet flower unfurled around a green stalk, looms over curious onlookers, stands some eight feet tall and weighs in at close to 300 pounds.
Its smell is "like a dead rabbit that has been lying in the sun for two weeks and you open the box," said Bart Van de Vijver, a researcher and botanist at the Botanic garden that houses the titan arum, also known as a "corpse flower." Its pungent aroma is designed to attract certain flies that usually feast on meat, as they are the plant's pollinators.
Titan arums rarely bloom, but the garden has been lucky, said Van de Vijver. This week marks the third time theirs has bloomed since receiving the plant in 2008 from Bonn, Germany. The garden notifies their Facebook fans when the plant blooms, along with the media.
“That's how we attract people,” said said Van de Vijver. “We don't use smell – we use newspapers.”
Lisa Yee, 52, a children's book author in South Pasadena, California, queued up to see, and smell, a corpse flower when it bloomed at San Marino's Huntington Gardens in 2002.
"It was horrible, but I was expecting to pass out, which, in a strange way, would have been exciting," said Yee. "I thought I had smelled public restrooms that were worse.”
Still, she was inspired by the plant to write a children's book about the smelliest tree in the world. She said part of the giddiness she saw in other visitors is that “it's like when you taste something awful and you turn to someone and say 'taste this, it's awful.'"
Meanwhile, inside the Belgium greenhouse the temperature is over 86 degrees. "You enter in a very sweaty, warm place with this decomposing body smell," said Van de Vijver, who has to wash his hair after work to remove the plant's odor. "I think you would turn around and go back if you weren't here to see this beautiful flower.”
However, the smell is “not because he doesn't like people around," said Van de Vijver, who referred to the plant, which has both "male" and "female" parts, using both gender pronouns. “It's only there to attract the insects, to say 'the flowers are open, you can come,'” said Van de Vijver.
The perfume is as ephemeral as it is powerful, and it began fading Tuesday night.
“As soon as the flowers are pollinated it doesn't need to invest energy to produce these pheromones. It costs a lot of energy to the plant to produce," he said. "In nature nothing [is done] without a reason — except with humans.”
If you missed it, and don't have plans to visit Sumatra where the plant grows in the wild, you can look for it in cultivation at gardens worldwide. Or if you like the one in Belgium, don't give up.
“Ours ... likes to flower,” Van de Vijver said. “We expect it might take another three years (to bloom again). But she showed she is quite unpredictable.”