The putrid-smelling plant drew crowds to the venue to witness a bloom nearly a decade in the making.
On July 10, an ungodly stench overtook Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens when the titan arum, which produces the corpse flower, unleashed its signature odor of rotting flesh, an awful yet highly anticipated smell. “I’ve never experienced what we’re going through right now,” said Dave Brigner, the conservatory’s senior horticulturist, as Bob Smellanor was blooming. He meant it in the best possible way.
The Flower Child
Titan arums, native to Sumatran rainforests, are considered endangered, and because they’re so rare, their genealogy is usually easy to trace. In 2012, the Franklin Park plant grew from a seed cultivated by Paul Cooper, head grower at the Liberty Hyde Bailey Conservatory at Cornell University. They don’t self-pollinate, so scientists assist in seed reproduction. Its “mother” plant at Cornell is named Wee Stinky, and its “father,” Metis, belonged to Binghamton University.
In 2016, Cooper gave the plant that would become Bob Smellanor to a grad student for an auction by the International Plant Propagators Society. Two Columbus residents purchased the plant and then donated it to Franklin Park Conservatory.
A Rose by Any Other Name
Cooper says the titan arum is traditionally named once it blooms the first time. The conservatory held a naming contest and bestowed both the top choices, says marketing coordinator Kate Liebers. “I think this is the first titan with a first and last name,” she adds.
Why All the Fuss?
The titan arum can go up to a decade before ever producing a bloom and may take just as long to flower again. Brigner discovered the bloom, the first by this plant and the first of Cooper’s titan arum seedlings to blossom. “I went to text our horticulture manager, and I was tearing up and I was shaking,” Brigner recalls. “It took me totally by surprise that this was going to happen.”
Ohh, That Smell!
Like other plants that put off a sweet scent to attract honey bees for pollination, titan arums need to entice insects that feed on carrion—the decaying flesh of dead animals. During the height of its bloom, the corpse flower can attract pollinators from half a mile away.
It is a gag-worthy smell best described as the odor of an animal that has died within the walls of a house. “The sense I had was roadkill,” says Laura Wies of Clintonville, who made a special trip to the conservatory to witness the bloom.
A Virtual Bloom
When the first corpse flower bloomed in captivity in the United Kingdom in 1889, police were called in for crowd control. The conservatory kept a better handle on the situation by selling timed tickets and using online resources. The staff set up a livestream on their website to enable as many people as possible to see Bob Smellanor in bloom.
It had an unintended consequence, Liebers explains. Visitors would text family members at home and tell them to tune in to the livestream when they were about to enter the biome. Once inside, they would wave at the camera with Bob in the background. It was emotional, she says, noting the separation the pandemic has forced. “To watch people connect, not just with nature but with their families as well, was an especially meaningful impact of Bob’s bloom.”