World of Wonder: Corpse Flower -The Toast

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Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s previous World of Wonder columns for The Butter can be found here.

With a heavy but happy and wonder-ously stinky heart, I’m sharing that my time here on The Butter has come to an end. As I mentioned last time, I’ve had to trim my outside projects to focus on a couple of book projects during my sabbatical. But not before ending this column with my favorite specimen of all time from the plant world, Amorphophallus titanium — the corpse flower.


The corpse flower has the largest inflorescence in the world, with the flower averaging 8 to 10 feet tall. It only grows in the wild in Indonesia, but several botanical gardens here in the U.S. have had much success growing them indoors. In 1937, the New York Botanical Gardens was the first in the country to successfully display one in full bloom. Each bloom only lasts about 24 hours, and indoors they only bloom every eight years or so.

There’s no way I could have planned this kind of “full-circle” moment here in my column, but for my second World of Wonder entry I took us to Chicago’s Botanical Gardens, where much of my interest and fascination with the plant world was first (ahem) cultivated there as a little girl, and now — any day now, really — a corpse flower is slated to bloom in that very spot! You can check out Chicago’s live corpse flower camera HERE.

I’ve been tracking these flowers’ blooms all over the country for over a decade, which (#sidenote #protip) made for an easy way to “weed out” guys I dated. When they would ask, “So what are some of your interests?” I’d tell them about this giant flower with a seriously foul smell, and I could tell in one instant whether or not there’d be a second date or if I’d be ghosting him soon (yes, in my single days, the quickest way to be ghosted by me was to show a complete lack of interest or wonder about the natural world, sorrynotsorry).

I first encountered a corpse flower in person at the University of Wisconsin’s beautiful campus greenhouse back in 2001. I remember being so pleased that the line of people waiting to see this flower was longer than the line to buy Dave Matthews Band tickets on campus. Back then, in the heady days of late June, the greenhouse temperatures were already pushing into the high 80s — but that didn’t deter the hundreds of people who waited over an hour for the opportunity to get a big whiff of what is perhaps the most memorable sensation of this flower: its smell.

This smell is basically what I imagine emanates from the bottom of a used diaper pail left out in the late August sun, after someone empties a tin of sardines and a bottle of blue cheese salad dressing on top. And maybe three to four more dirty diapers. And then you’re asked to put your face near that hot mess and take a deep breath. Yep. That’s pretty darn close to what the corpse flower smells like in person. Delicious, no? That smell and the deep-red meaty color of the bloom is what attracts insects to pollinate the flower before it goes dormant for several years and folds back up into itself.


Morty in full bloom, Buffalo Botanical Gardens, Aug. 2014

The last one I saw bloom in person was around this time last year at my hometown botanical gardens in Buffalo, NY. “Morty’s” appearance drew the biggest crowds in the garden’s 115-year history and I’m so glad it was the first one my sons were able to see and smell in person. Why not start ‘em young, right? And because so many readers have asked, here is a clip from a poetry reading I did last year in front of the governor of CT where I read a poem about the corpse flower and how it was my mother of all people who first told me about it (and I didn’t believe her that it even existed!) some of the folklore associated with it. (Note: people were drinking at this outdoor event, which doesn’t normally happen at my poetry readings — but it should, amirite?)

So there you have it, Dear Readers. I’d be remiss if I didn’t give a special shout out to my wondrous and smart-as-heck editor, Nicole Chung, who put up with some crazy last-minute searches of all of these spectacularly weird animals and plants to ensure we didn’t pilfer someone’s photography. And to the mighty Roxane Gay, who said yes in the first place — I’m so very grateful to have her in my corner, and for all she does to champion writers of all stripes.

To YOU all — may you always make time to look for a bit of wonder in your life. And please don’t be a stranger: If you fall…in wonder — with a particularly fetching/weird (or weirdly fetching) animal or plant, do tell HERE or HERE. Keep sending me those gob-smackingly fun videos and pics of nature magic you come across (especially if it has to do with narwhals)! I’ve already marked some of those narwhal gift suggestions for Santa this year — thanks so much.

Now for one last question, O Wonderous Ones: When was the last time you saw an animal or plant IN PERSON that made you cry/made your heart hurt/filled you with wonder at how beautiful/arresting it was? Let me know in the comments below (with a pic or video if you have it!). Let us all have many moments to choose from, and if you don’t — start now! What would it mean for us, Dear Readers, if we promise and pledge to be open to noticing — really noticing — more astonishments in our daily lives?

See you around this wonder-full blue planet!

Aimee Nezhukumatathil is the author of three books of poetry, most recently Lucky Fish. She is a professor of English and teaches poetry and environmental lit at a small college in Western New York. She is obsessed with peacocks, jellyfish, and school supplies. Follow her on Twitter: @aimeenez.

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