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Ah, Spring, When the `Corpse Flower' Releases Its Perfume

Fullerton Arboretum expects crowds as the most putrid-smelling flower nears its bloom.

June 02, 2006|Tanya Caldwell | Times Staff Writer

Uh-oh. The world's stinkiest flower is blooming in Orange County again, primed to emit an odor that botanists, kindly perhaps, say resembles rotting flesh.

The "corpse flower" of Sumatra, named Tiffy Titan by botanists at the Fullerton Arboretum, is set to blossom any day now. Experts predict it will bloom Saturday.

And when Tiffy blooms, Tiffy reeks. Bad.

"Think of it this way: It attracts flies and beetles that feed on decomposing flesh, so the plant is mimicking that odor," said Chris Barnhill, a curator at the arboretum. "It smells like a rotting possum under your porch."

Smell like a good time? Plant lovers and olfactory aficionados seemed to have thought so. When such a flower bloomed in New York in 1937, the spectacle spawned a stampede and police had to be rushed in to help. When it blossomed at the Huntington Library gardens in 1999, it drew 76,000 curious sniffers to the site for three days.

Tiffy and her sister plant, Taffy, were delivered to the Cal State Fullerton campus in 1994 from an Indonesian rain forest. The scientific name, amorphophallus titanium, or titan arum, means "giant, shapeless phallus." The flower can grow up to 6 feet tall and 3 feet wide.

Tiffy's name is a play on Tuffy Titan, the elephant mascot of CSUF's teams.

Naturally, Tiffy's pungency has a purpose. Its sulfur chemicals puff out in spurts to draw carcass-eating bugs, then dupe them into spreading its pollen. Flies, likely mistaking the flower's aroma and crimson interior as flesh, lay eggs. When the maggots hatch and find no food, they die.

It's a rotten trick, Barnhill said.

"If you were to say that insects have feelings, they wouldn't feel very good about it," Barnhill said.

Biology greenhouse manager Edward Read said wryly that visitors with a delicate stomach might want to be cautious during the blooming. Still, some think the plant gets a bad rap.

"I think the term 'rotting flesh' is a bit harsh. I would call it a 'fragrance of decay.' How's that?" offered Janice Lowry Gothold, who saw Tiffy for the first time when it bloomed in 2003. "It's not a flower or plant that you would have at a party, that's for sure. It kind of smells like your garbage disposal."

The public can visit Tiffy for free at the arboretum, which expects to extend its hours so more people can smell Tiffy for themselves. For information, go to

Your clothes may smell like you've gone dumpster diving, Barnhill said, but it'll be worth it to witness one of the plant kingdom's oddest events. And it may be another three years before Tiffy stinks up this town again.

"This is a chance for the public to see a real spectacle of nature," Barnhill said. "There are some plants that smell like lemon and chocolate, and there are some that smell like rotting garbage, and that's sort of wonderful, too."

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