The little blonde girl and her littler, blonder brother are running hand in hand down the ramp of the Tropical Pavilion at the Muttart Conservatory. With six-year-old authority, she tells him, “And pretty soon it’s going to get a flower. And then it will stink like dead bodies!” Her face and voice light up with revolted glee.
A lot of Edmontonians share her enthusiasm. For the last two weeks, we’ve been holding our collective breath for word that the Conservatory’s Amorphophallus titanum, aka the Corpse Flower, has finally opened her reeking blossom Putrella, as she has been fondly named, bloomed in 2013, so her willingness to flower again so quickly has been a happy surprise: Corpse flowers can become dormant for up to 10 years between blooming periods.
Like parents thrilled by a sudden second pregnancy, the Conservatory’s Facebook page has updated us frequently on Putrella’s galloping growth – 4 inches one night, 3 inches the next. Yes, they assure us, the time lapse camera is already recording her progress, and they’re also monitoring her internal temperature.
Then comes the report that the protective sheath on the blossom has unfurled, a sure sign that the birth is imminent. Edmontonians who are leaving town for the Easter weekend cross their fingers that the blessed event will be delayed, those who are staying home hope for an earlier announcement. We all know that when the bloom reveals itself, we only have 48 hours at the most to get to the nursery for a whiff of Putrella’s odoriferous essence. The Conservatory has already announced its doors will be open for the first 24 hours after Putrella gives birth to accommodate everyone who wants to share in the experience.
Finally, at 3 a.m. on Tuesday, April 7, it happens By 7:15 that evening, the Conservatory announces a one hour wait time to get into their facility. I set my alarm clock for an hour earlier than usual, and cruise into the Muttart’s almost deserted parking lot at 5:30 the next morning.
“Busy night?” I ask the security guard at the cash desk.
“It was pretty steady until about 2 a.m.,” he says, shaking his head slightly. “Just starting to pick up again.”
The automatic doors into the darkened Tropical Pavilion drift open as I approach. I join a half dozen other people talking in low voices in front of the new mother, her alien beauty accented by white-purple spotlights. Two guides are answering questions, and offering to take pictures if people would like to pose with Putrella.
“Is it just me, or does she not stink as much as you said she would?” I ask one of the guides.
“The aroma comes and goes,” she says. “Sometimes, it depends on where you’re standing. Go over there and lean in.”
And, oh yes, whew, there it is, a smell that chemical analysis says includes the aromas of Limburg cheese, rotting fish, sweat socks, antiseptic, and mothballs. In the rainforest of her native Sumatra, Putrella would be attracting carrion-eating beetles and flesh flies, their attentiveness assisting her to pollinate.
“If you’d like a break for your noses, folks, our feature pyramid has hyacinths blooming. Feel free to visit there before you leave.”
I take the guide’s advice, but somehow I feel strangely drawn back to Putrella. What is it about her that has attracted our attention? The thrill of a once-in-a-long-while experience? A way to indulge in a little socially acceptable morbidity? A sense of sharing in a community’s excitement?
As I exit through the Conservatory’s gift shop, I overhear a young woman enthusing to one of Putrella’s caretakers. “It’s so cool,” she said. “I just can’t stop talking about it. And I’m not even a plant person. But maybe I’ll become one!”