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Arts & Culture

Smelling 'Like Dead Fish in North Carolina,' Dartmouth's Corpse Flower Blooms

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Sean Hurley
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The Lindsay Family come to terms with Morphy.

Morphy the Corpse Flower came into bloom this past weekend at Dartmouth College and  NHPR’s Sean Hurley stood in line with hundreds of people eager to get a whiff of the smelliest flower in the world.

Let’s just get to it.

“It smells like the garbage I just took to the dump,” Liz Clark says.  

“It smells like a dead animal that you’d smell on the side of the road,” Lisa Durstin says.

Both women, from South Strafford, Vermont, are shocked to learn that an hour before blooming, Morphy had no scent at all.

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Credit Sean Hurley
Greenhouse Manager Kim DeLong with Morphy, shortly before the corpse flower bloomed.

What was disturbing then about the 7 foot 6 inch corpse flower was visual.  It looked like a whale being eaten by a cabbage. 

“I'm not even sure I'd have the imagination to create something like this. I mean it could be in Star Wars - the plant in the bar scene,” says Kim DeLong, Greenhouse Manager and one of Morphy’s caretakers.

“The full botanical name,” she continues, “is amorphophallus titanium and it means giant misshapen penis botanically.”

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Credit Sean Hurley
The Corpse flower opened on Friday afternoon - at first it gave off a scent of cigars.

Theresa Barry, who co-manages the greenhouse with DeLong, volunteered to stay with Morphy through the night after it bloomed.   At 2, Friday afternoon, she says, it smelled of cigar. But by 7 pm the fragrance was more dead mouse.  And then by midnight Barry says Morphy smelled like, “Rotten fish. And it was so strong it was affecting the back of my throat.” 

Even though Morphy’s foul fragrance peaked at midnight, still the following day 3 and a half year old Eliza Joy Rapf from New York City reports, “It doesn’t smell good.” 

But her father isn’t that impressed.  “It doesn’t smell that strong to me,” he says. “It smells a little like garbage.”

Pinching their noses nearby, the Lindsay sisters, Faith, Ella, and Kaye from Hanover, beg to differ. 

“I think kids have a better smell than adults, cause we’re the ones holding our nose,” Faith says.

“Terrible!” Ella says. “It smells like rotting manure.  I just didn’t know anything could smell that bad.”

What does 6 year old Abby Lindsay think? “It’s really bad and I’m only 6!”

Kim DeLong provides a little background on the corpse flower. “They come from Sumatra in Indonesia,” she says, “and they've evolved that stink to call in pollinators from a long ways away.”

Meat eating beetles and flesh flies who get tricked into the pollinating process by the rotting smell, by the body-like heat of the plant, by its tempting burgundy leaf. 

“The dark burgundy is meant to imitate the look of dead meat,” DeLong says. “So in addition to the really horrible smell it's also a visual thing for the beetles and flies that pollinate it.”

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Credit Sean Hurley
To the right of Morphy stands Snape - a corpse flower in the more common state of "leaf".

Standing beside Morphy, ignored by the crowd, is a small, palm-tree shaped plant named Snape.  Snape and Morphy look nothing alike - but both are corpse flowers.

“This is a leaf,” DeLong says pointing first to Snape then to Morphy, “and this is a flower. So they're hugely different from each other.”

The corpse flower, DeLong says, lives this kind of Jekyl and Hyde existence.  Most of the time, it lives a quiet leafy life like Snape.  But every 6 to 8 years, she says, “Somehow it decides that it has enough energy stored in the tuber to say ‘OK I can send up the flower now.’”

Three weeks ago, DeLong says, they had no idea that Morphy was going to flower – until one of the researchers noticed the pedestal had begun to open.  “And I was like ‘Oh my god!’” DeLong recalls, “so we went into high gear because we knew it was going to be a flower.” 

High gear involving  the installation of a live web cam and a flood of press releases.

“I think it smells like dead people,” 11 year old Colin Lafromboise says.

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Credit Sean Hurley
Colin and Ella LaFromboise. Colin thinks Morphy smells "like dead people". Ella says "it smells like dead fish in North Carolina."

The now huge plant grew rapidly – 2 to 3 inches a day over a period of 7 weeks.  And after blooming, Theresa Barry says, “It will take a little more than a week to completely collapse, but there won’t be very much left in about a week and we’ll probably have a smell for another 3 to 5 days.”

And as long as the smell persists, DeLong says, crowds will come, “I think the inner kid in us loves to get grossed out by stuff.  Rollercoasters and scary movies and even corpse flowers - it's like wow this is kind of cool.”

8 year old Ella LaFromboise puts it this way:  “I think it smells like dead fish in North Carolina.”

Exactly.  

Click here for visiting hours at Dartmouth's Life Science Greenhouse. 

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