Right this second, the New York Botanical Garden is bearing witness to a historic moment: The corpse flower is blooming.
Rare as it is for it to make an appearance, the plant never fails to cause a stir, as it takes about ten years to flower and blooms only sporadically after that. Blossoming is unpredictable and short, lasting anywhere from 24 to 36 hours. The Indonesian-native plant rarely blooms in the wild and even less frequently in captivity, but they do prefer the humid climate summer brings. A corpse flower in full bloom hasn’t been displayed at the New York Botanical Gardens in nearly eighty years. One is expected on Saturday or Sunday (just a day or two after Donald Trump’s convention speech), though death is notoriously unpredictable. [UPDATE: The NYBG now is anticipating a Sunday/Monday bloom. You can find more information here.]
Luckily, there is a live-feed.
The corpse flower, known as Amorphophallus titanum, can grow to be twelve feet tall and is designed to attract flesh-eating pollinators like flies and dung beetles. When in bloom, it generates its own heat, reaching up to 98 degrees Fahrenheit.
More noticeable is its smell, often described as a scent akin to rotting flesh, and the deep red color of its petal-like spathe, which furthers the illusion of an appetizing carcass.
For such an elusive creature, the corpse flower is having something of a national moment. In California, Chico State is just recovering from their smelly surprise that swept onto their campus on the seventh. Another is popping up after nine years in Indiana University’s Jordan Hall Greenhouse. Yet another, dubbed “Jack,” is in bloom at the Missouri Botanical Garden — its sixth in four years. In Poplarville, Mississippi, one has flowered for the first time ever.
In 1937, the New York Botanical Gardens hosted the first blooming corpse flower in America, meant to be documented by a mob of photographers. Yet when the spadix opened for blossom, they, along with Gardens staff, were all out to lunch. The New York Times settled for describing it in a latent stage: “Like a huge ear of corn with some of the characteristics of the cucumber.”
The last time a corpse flower bloomed at NYBG, in 1939, Bronx Borough President James J. Lyon designated Amorphophallus titanum the official flower of the Bronx, saying, “its tremendous size shall be symbolic of the largest and fastest-growing borough in the city of New York.” (In 2000 it was axed in favor of the lily.)
After predators wise up to the corpse flower’s tricks, they fly off, carrying pollen to neighboring plants and ensuring the imposter’s survival. Those who don’t are trapped, wedging themselves into the darkest corner of the plant, hoping to find a safe place to lay eggs. As the corpse flower slowly shuts its spathe to the world, they spend the rest of their short lives unsatiated and in the dark. Outside, human admirers are no less gullible.
If you too are feeling despair settling in to your bones, may we suggest a visit to the New York Botanical Garden’s Haupt Conservatory. Witness a botanical miracle unfold before your eyes. Take in the curious scent of death, maybe even confront your own mortality.