A handmade 'Stink-O-Meter' placed next to the flower was set to 'foul' — the second degree of severity on the chart, worse than 'funky' but more agreeable than 'disgusting'
TORONTO — History, depending on one’s palate, either smelled like feces, a decayed carcass or old food left to calcify in a teenage boy’s gym bag at Canada’s largest zoo on Friday as visitors lined up to hail the blooming of the Amorphophallus titanum, a plant native to Indonesia renowned for its viscerally unpleasant odour.
The plant, which is also known as the corpse flower, had only bloomed in Canada on four occasions prior to this week, and never before at the Toronto Zoo, the site of this latest milestone.
Clothespins sat on offer in a wicker basket at the entrance to the exhibit on Friday morning for any spectator who wanted to plug their nostrils before treading any farther. Most people walked on without protection, though, preferring to take in what Paul Gellatly, the zoo’s curatorial gardener, says is the single worst smell in the plant world — and one of that world’s rarest sights.
This is like a horticultural Christmas for me
“This is like a horticultural Christmas for me. The pinnacle of the horticultural career is this flower,” Gellatly said. “Every time one of these blooms, it is a major event, and people line up for hours just to get a glimpse.”
The ranks of the spectators who paid $12 a pop to see the special exhibit starting Thursday evening, shortly after the corpse flower began to bloom, included “plant geeks” who had travelled from as far as London, Ont., and Ottawa, Gellatly said. He had heard that people were driving from the United States to see the flower on Friday, though the limited window in which it emits its smell — no more than 36 hours from the time it opens, and sometimes much less than that — made it possible they would arrive disappointed.
The most frequent rate at which a corpse flower blooms is once a decade, and the zoo didn’t expect this particular flower to flourish for another four years at the earliest. Only 200 or so have ever bloomed in collections around the world, Gellatly said. Still, this process is remarkable for more than its rarity, a realization that hit zoo-goers on Friday as soon as they got within sniffing distance of the plant.
“It smells disgusting,” said Oliver Booth, 10, who drove to the zoo with his mother from Cookstown, about 90 minutes north of Toronto. From a certain angle, he specified, the flower’s scent reminded him of a “dirty gym bag — something like that. Mouldy cheese. Sweat. Poo.” He added that he was nevertheless happy to have seen it in person.
A handmade “Stink-O-Meter” placed next to the flower was set to “foul” during the Booths’ visit — the second degree of severity on the chart, worse than “funky” but more agreeable than “disgusting,” “rancid” and “downright offensive.” The smell, which corpse flowers release to attract carrion beetles and flies that help it pollinate, was at its worst between 11 p.m. and midnight on Thursday, an hour when Gellatly couldn’t bring himself to stand anywhere near the plant.
“It was that strong,” he said. “At its peak, I’d say it’s a cross between feces, rotten meat, a corpse.”
In Sumatra, the Indonesian island where it originates, the corpse flower is a threatened species, endangered by the loss of forests that are being razed in the name of establishing palm oil plantations. Some, though, have found a home in collections abroad, including at botanical gardens in New York and Australia that Gellatly called in the past few weeks to gain as much insight as he could about how to oversee this momentous blooming.
Sue Lavery, a member of the Toronto Zoo, was travelling through Sumatra with a friend last year and just missed seeing a corpse flower bloom. She was in the lineup Friday to right that disappointment, before the flower began to wilt and the smell faded.
“I was hoping for a stinkier stink,” she said. “It does smell like rotten cabbage, if you get the whiff of it.” It was enough, Lavery added, to make her enjoy the experience.
“I think it’s fascinating,” she said. “It’s great having stuff like this in our country that we can get to see that we wouldn’t otherwise.”