How something so alive can smell so dead she’ll never know, but Jennifer Esqueda is so here for it.
The horticulture major from Orange Coast College missed work Monday to get a whiff and an eyeful of The Huntington’s corpse flower, which began blooming Sunday afternoon.
“I am really excited,” said Esqueda, 26, of Costa Mesa. “It’s a great experience to be able to see something like this. And the closest I can describe the smell to is a dead rat, and yes, I’ve smelled a dead rat.”
Esqueda visited The Huntington last week, hoping to catch the smelly unfurling. She said aside from lots of photos, she will also buy a t-shirt and pin from the bookstore to commemorate her successful expedition.
Brandon Tam, associate curator of the orchid collection, fielded questions from guests, explaining each plant takes 4-6 years to flower and that The Huntington has 43 mature specimens of the corpse flower, known formally as Amorphallus titanum or Allan the Amorphohallus to fans. The last corpse flower to bloom on premises was 2022’s Scent-tennial.
“It stinks, it blooms infrequently and it grows quickly, that’s why people are so fascinated and enticed by it,” Tam said.
The corpse flower can grow up to 8 feet tall and blooms for only about one to three days a year. It has been called the world’s largest flower.
The online bloom watch, live-streamed on YouTube and Instagram the past couple of weeks, brought longtime member Aaron Corder of Pasadena to the garden.
“I’ve been following on Instagram and geeking out about it, so I had to get down here and check it out,” Corder said. “I had to come and smell how potent it is.”
His verdict? An earnest and appreciative “Phew.”
Bryce Dunn, conservatory gardener, was the first to witness the corpse flower’s activity from its spot in the Rose Hills Foundation Conservatory. He said it was amazing how widely and quickly the plant head opened within hours.
As for the aroma, Dunn said the plant, which is native to Sumatra, Indonesia, smells like a bunch of food items left to bake in the sun, or what you’d get a whiff of passing a restaurant dumpster.
Dulce Arzola of Highland Park and Mimi Chakravorty of Pasadena came armed with iced coffees to beat the 103-degree heat and tropical humidity in the conservatory.
“It was cool to see, and I smelled it when I walked in,” Chakravorty said.
Arzola admired the plant’s maroon petals but said she smelled worse things on the sidewalks of L.A.
Warren Smuzynski drove from Orange County to visit The Huntington for the first time. He said he comes away impressed with the massive bloom and gardens itself.
For Tam, all the malodorous excitement is a chance to talk about plant conservation. The Huntington exhibited the first corpse flower to ever bloom in California in 1999. It built on that success by hand-pollinating the plant with its own pollen and then sharing specimens of this rare species with other educational institutions such as Moody Gardens in Texas and San Antonio Zoo. The Fullerton Arboretum on the grounds of Cal State Fullerton and San Diego Botanic Gardens in Encinitas also have corpse flowers in their collections. At Cal State Long Beach, a corpse flower known as Phil first bloomed in 2019.
Seeing and smelling a corpse flower is a spectacular event, Tam said, and like many elements in Mother Nature, timing is everything.
Esqueda, the aspiring botanist who missed work to be at the nature show, said playing hooky to spend time in a garden is always worth it.
“Plants make the world more beautiful, and aside from cleaning our air, there’s so much to learn about them,” she said. “We wouldn’t be here without plants.”
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