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Rare Corpse Flower bloom unleashes putrid smell in San Diego

DANIEL ESTRIN, HOST:

Behold, the corpse flower - smells like its name, looks a little creepy, and this week, two rare specimens are in bloom. One is at San Francisco's Conservatory of Flowers. The other is at the San Diego Botanic Garden, where Ari Novy is the president and CEO. Welcome.

ARI NOVY: Hello.

ESTRIN: First question for you - does this thing really smell like a corpse?

NOVY: It absolutely does. The way I describe it is it smells like if you took, like, your teenager's dirty laundry and you put it in a big black garbage bag and then you added in some hamburger meat, maybe some fish, a little garlic and some parmesan cheese and you left that by the side of the road on a very hot desert day for about a - 24 hours and then you came back to it. That's - I'm not even exaggerating. That is really what the smell is.

ESTRIN: How disgustingly delightful, Ari. Why on earth did Mother Nature create a flower that smells that bad?

NOVY: Well, you know, there are insects out there - in fact, a lot of insects - that really like the smell of rotting flesh or other - what we might describe as humans as fetid or rotting odors. And those insects can pollinate plants. And, in fact, there are several plants - and, of course, this being the biggest and kind of most iconic one that utilizes this strategy of using rotting flesh odors that humans find repulsive to attract a bunch of insects who actually love that smell.

ESTRIN: Aha. OK, and that helps with pollination, I guess.

NOVY: Exactly.

ESTRIN: So I'm looking right now at the 24-hour corpse cam that you have on your website. Gosh, this thing has a personality. It's just - it's enormous. It's this sort of, like, wineglass shape and then this huge, I guess, kind of tentacle that kind of sticks straight up. It - you know, it's sort of "Little Shop Of Horror" vibes, just looking at this. I've been staring at this all day, and it was sticking straight up, and now it's wilting. What's going on?

NOVY: So our flower right now is at the end of its flowering cycle. And these things are - they're hard to predict when they're going to start flowering. And then all of a sudden, typically over the course of an afternoon or an evening, it opens up into that urn shape that you described earlier. And then it's going to stay open for about two days. On the first night, it's going to smell the stinkiest as the female flowers come into receptivity. And then it's going to stay open and smell again on the second night as the male flowers come into receptivity. And then on the third day, it's going to begin to start to wilt. Ours opened up on Sunday, today's Thursday. So it's been four days, and we're into that drooping cycle. So that means if you want to see it at San Diego Botanic Garden, you know, come as quickly as you possibly can.

ESTRIN: How rare is a corpse-flower sighting?

NOVY: Well, in nature, they're incredibly rare, unfortunately. They're only found on the island of Sumatra in Indonesia. And unfortunately, they have become very, very rare, largely due to habitat loss. And you got to think, these are plants also that maybe flower for two days every five years. So even if there's a fair number of them in a local area, the odds of seeing them flower on any given day are very, very, very low. In captivity, let's say, in the botanic garden universe, they were very, very rare until about 15 or 20 years ago, when some advances in horticultural technology made it possible for a lot more botanic gardens and other institutions to be able to grow them.

ESTRIN: So have you been getting a lot of people come to see this thing? What have been people's reactions?

NOVY: Oh, yeah. I mean, this is, like, the rock-star plant of the plant world. It's kind of like a panda if you were a zoo. It's amazing that - I mean, people come from all over the place. We had one bloom about 18 months ago, and a guy saw it on the webcam in Texas and immediately got in his car so that he could make it for the blooming. And he drove day and night and got to San Diego. And this is just one of those plants that has the ability to grab people's attentions, even if you're not a plant person, and kind of just help you appreciate the wonders of the plant kingdom. And I think that's kind of a superpower that is reserved to very few plants. And this is one of them.

ESTRIN: All right. Well, enjoy that rock-star plant - limited time only. Ari Novy, president and CEO of the San Diego Botanic Garden. Thank you.

NOVY: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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