I first caught wind of the blooming of the New York Botanical Garden’s corpse flower—a titan arum, more properly termed—during the Republican National Convention, when caretakers first announced that their ten years of careful labor, watering and fertilizing a gargantuan plant that is by all accounts greedy for resources, would soon result in a rare blossom of a distinctive meaty color and famously noxious odor, both of which are intended to attract animals that feed on carrion.
A corpse flower bloom hadn’t been seen here[*] in almost eighty years, and it would last only a day or two, so of course I read it allegorically. Either the caretakers or Mother Nature were offering up a commentary on the rise of Donald Trump, who, like a corpse flower himself, had long kept his political bloom underground, and whose flamboyantly colorful hair and noxious message, now out in the open, had attracted an array of voters pretty much identical to the carcass-loving, bottom-feeding, soul-sucking verminalia that slither through Indonesian jungles, just waiting for shit to die. The timing was perfect. The flower would bloom at the height of the RNC, and then Trump, along with his botanical doppelganger, would wither, crumble, and sink back underground for another eighty-year nap with the worms.
But it was not to be. When the announcement went out that the bloom was imminent, the reaction was global. It was a masterpiece of memeification, a bit of stagecraft worthy of Plouffe or Rove, and there was absolutely no way the Bronx Zoo’s brand new fairy penguin chick (cute as all hell) could compete. The corpse flower didn’t care. The finicky plant refused to cooperate. It waited, as New York suffered through yet another global warming-induced heat blast. And then it waited some more. And, alas, it was not until the Democratic National Convention—in fact, the very night of Hillary Clinton’s acceptance speech—that this snooty titan arum finally decided it was ready for its close-up.
If you bloom it, they will come. If it smells like a cadaver, even better, because odors, like touch, are a sense yet unconquered by the digital invasion (though you can probably expect Pokemon Go 2.0 to offer 152 scratch-and-sniff cards so that bored hipsters can spend a few more days blood-hounding their way through Central Park).
When it comes down to it, the corpse flower basically looks like a giant tulip with a penis.
When I arrived the scene was reminiscent of the time I went to see Barack Obama in Minnesota in 2008. Lines snaked out the glass-domed conservatory building and stretched down one of the Botanical Garden’s tree-lined roads further than I could see. Given the name of the flower, however—not to mention its smell—the scene outside felt less like waiting for a rally than like attending another sort of political pageantry: the viewing of a fallen leader. Moist and weary from the multi-train journey to the Bronx, the solemn crowd took shuffling steps forward, heads bowed not in sorrow, but to study their phones.
Inside, it felt like a party. You could glimpse the corpse flower from afar, like a politician who hogs the spotlight and becomes the center of attention at parties that aren’t even for him. The plant was actually a smallish specimen, roughly human-sized—titan arums sometimes rise above six meters—and by now you’ve probably seen pictures of it, but here’s a description for posterity: the corpse flower is an extraterrestrial pitcher plant, with one giant sheath of a petal like an inside-out Diane von Furstenberg wrap dress, and a massive towering spike shooting out of the middle. G-rated commentators have likened the spike to a baguette; however, the plant’s scientific name, Amorphophallus titanum, translates basically to “giant shapeless dick.” The corpse flower’s anatomy is all alien—frills, spathe, corm, spadix, inflorescence—but when it comes down it, what it looks like is a giant tulip with a penis. I’m sure that something quite similar made frequent appearances in the dreams of Dr. Seuss.
But really we were here for the smell, and just as the news of the flower’s appearance, you had to be in the right place at the right time to catch it. I crept around to the flower’s far side—and there I caught it. There are many descriptions of the smell of the corpse flower out there, combinations of Limburger cheese, rotting fish, sweaty socks, human feces, and Chloraseptic, but I didn’t register it like that. For me, it was more like a taste. I felt it as much in my throat as my nose. It was a film of an odor, an invisible gas that seeped past my lips and condensed on my tongue and began a creeping invasion of my esophagus like a plague cast down by some furious immortal.
The blooming of the corpse flower revealed that a little oxymoronic beauty is something people will still go out of their way to see.
Yet the flower was cause for celebration and close-ups. One man, in particular, had turned the occasion into a private holiday. He was dressed as flamboyantly as the flower itself, and he had dyed his beard red and his hair orange, and he stood in front of the flower so that his partner could snap his picture beside it. He was wildly happy.
It was this that made me question my impulse to read the flower as a political symbol, as a message it was clearly not. Rather, if anything at all, the blooming of the corpse flower revealed that a little oxymoronic beauty is something people will still go out of their way to see—quite far out of their way, it turns out. Even in a burning season of uncertainty, even as the world bastes in hate, some flocked to witness a moment of primordial longing, a moment that was not a representation of love and birds and bees, but actually an example of it, only disguised as disgust. That was the irony that was so easy to forget: the blooming of the corpse flower, like a happy wake, celebrated life.
[*] Correction: An earlier version of this article stated there hadn’t been a bloom “in New York in eighty years.” The last bloom at the New York Botanical Garden was in 1939. But there was a corpse flower bloom in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden in 2006.