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The Putrid Smell of Success

At an unveiling of the notorious corpse flower, enthusiasts expect to be disgusted

Author Karen Schwartz Illustration Marc Rosenthal


DENVER – It’s well before dawn at the Denver Botanic Gardens, and already there are hundreds of people lined up outside, here to experience the first bloom of a 15-year-old plant. It’s not so much the rarity of the event that has brought so many people out as the aroma, which is said to be so foul that the organizers have laid out commemorative barf bags.

Standing more than 5 feet tall, with a green-maroon funnel and a yellow fleshy spike, the corpse flower looks like something from another world. The bloom is pollinated by carrion beetles, which it attracts by emitting a stench that’s similar to rotting flesh. Today, it’s summoning around 12,000 Denverites looking to snap wrinkle-nosed selfies alongside it. The moderately curious drift away from the three-hour line, leaving only the truly committed. One man, having finally reached the front, leans in, turns to his companion and says, “Where’s the smell?”

Even at its peak, the flower’s scent is well short of horrific—one man describes it as  “more cheese than death.” Staffers soon realize they need to concentrate the odor, so they open a separate “whiff room” along the vent of a greenhouse exhaust fan. Here, away from the velvet rope, there hangs a hastily made sign: “Sniff Here.” 

Visitors file through the hallway, gingerly pushing their noses at a wall of industrial metal slats. Impressions of the aroma range from “garbage” to “rotting fruit” to “dirty diapers.” “I was expecting a bit more dead-body smell,” says a sullen preteen boy. 

He is one of the lucky ones. The following day, a further 10,000 people line up to sniff the corpse flower, but by then its perfume is all but gone. As closing time approaches, a security guard nods at two departing women. “I’m sorry you couldn’t smell anything disgusting,” he says. 

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