- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 14, 2013

A box of dead rabbits left to bake in the Florida sun.

That’s the best description Ari Novy of the U.S. Botanic Garden said he’s heard for the pungent odor produced by the titan arum, a behemoth of a plant world-renowned for its selective blooming, its size and its stench.

But with one of the Botanic Garden’s resident “corpse plants” on the cusp of blooming this week, there’s a good chance Mr. Novy will hear a few more choice descriptions of the putrid petals.

“It smells just like rotting garbage,” said George Peck, an entomologist who lives in Silver Spring. “It’s an old evolutionary trick, luring pollinators.”

The 52-year-old studier of bugs said he also loves botany, and his curiosity about the corpse plant is what enticed him and his 11-year-old son to come down to take some pictures.

“This plant is unique in the world,” he said. “It’s still not quite open, but it’s very exciting.”

On Sunday, several dark green pieces of protective coating had begun to peel away, revealing a vibrant green stem but no stench yet.

The Botanic Garden is staying open late Monday to accommodate additional visitors curious to get a whiff of the stinky plant.

A giant plant that smells like death might sound like something out of a horror story, but it’s the way the titan arum plants reproduce.

Just as certain flies will only lay their eggs in rotten meat, certain pollinators will only be attracted to a plant with a particular stench.

“Any dead animal left in a humid environment,” Mr. Novy summarized.

This is the first time this particular plant has bloomed. It came to the garden in 2007 about the size of a lima bean and is about 7 years old.

Originally forecast to bloom Thursday, a combination of lower temperatures and a “fickle” temperament have slowed the plant’s blooming, Mr. Novy said, meaning it’s more likely the giant plant will blossom early this week.

“It’s not there yet, it’s being coy with us,” said Mr. Novy, who was standing feet from where the enormous plant stands sentry in the conservatory’s humid Garden Court.

In full bloom, the plant unfolds to reveal a colorful blossom and a strong odor of rotting meat, both of which last only one or two days. The plant might not bloom again for several years.

“I’ve been to the Botanic Garden before, but I thought this was really unusual,” said Helen Burns, 49, of Waldorf, Md., who came with two friends from out of town to see the plant. “We might never get to see it again.”

“I was going to bring a nose plug,” said Ramona Galloway, 60, of Augusta, Ga. “I sure don’t want to smell it.

Pausing to read one of two large signs for visitors that detailed the life of the unique plant, Edward Douglas said he and his wife hadn’t known about the bloom until they saw the notice on the garden’s website while looking online for its open hours.

“We knew we had to come check it out,” the 58-year-old Virginia Beach resident said. “We knew we had to come look at it, since it’s quite a big deal.”

Mr. Novy said unlike other titan arum plants, which are between 3 and 5 feet tall when they first bloom, this one is more than 5 feet tall and weighs about 250 pounds.

The plant is a native of Indonesia and does best in a steadily warm climate.

Botanic Garden staff realized the plant was on its way to blooming last week. They moved it from its usual home in a greenhouse in Anacostia to one of the main rooms of the conservatory, which is at the edge of the southwest lawn of the U.S. Capitol.

Mr. Novy said the plant can appear as though it’s going to bloom but that the signs can turn out to be a false alarm.

“It’s the panda of the plant world and the rock star of the botanic community,” Mr. Novy said. “It’s got all the elements of excitement: It’s one of the largest plants, one of the smelliest, and is very exotic.”