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An opening act

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- Finally, the waiting was over. At long last, the titan arum plant, known for producing the world's largest flower -- as well as off-color comments -- was blooming at the U.S. Botanic Garden.

Or sort of blooming.

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After two weeks of rapt anticipation, the flower began to open at 3 p.m. Tuesday.

"It has happened!" the garden's titan arum hot line reported enthusiastically. "This is only the second time in 10 years our titan arum has bloomed!"

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Crowds of flower lovers, reporters and photographers hurried to the garden's conservatory, at the foot of the Capitol, to see the spectacular flower reveal itself. Then, suddenly, the blooming appeared to stop, although the plant was still producing the foul odor that accompanied it.

Was that it? Would the flower open any further? Would it ever look like the frilly, trumpet-shaped thing in the photograph right next to it?

"The bloom is of uncertain status," reported the voice on the updated hot line. "Each plant varies in its cycle and this one may continue opening or may have already achieved its peak condition."

"Part of the intrigue of this plant is that it has its own mind," Holly Shimizu, director of the Botanic Garden, told several reporters. "It's not controllable. It does what it wants to do when it wants to do it."

However one fact was certain: Whatever its peak condition, the flower would not survive it more than 48 hours. It was fated to collapse under its own weight and be pressed into a specimen for the National Herbarium.

But not before a whole lot of people had seen it.

Grown from a seedling donated by Maryland aroid enthusiasts Craig and Fanny Phillips, the plant produced its first flower two years ago while the conservatory was closed to the public. Its latest blooming stage began earlier this month when it was moved from the greenhouse to the Garden Court of the conservatory. Native to the rain forests of Sumatra, the titan arum has been marveled over by botanists since the late 19th century. The largest one is said to have risen to 12 feet; the average recorded height is about 5 feet.

The D.C. plant measured 55 inches on July 22 -- about half the size of the titan arum that bloomed last month at the University of Bonn.

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The first bloom was displayed in the United States in 1937. Since then, the American public has viewed only a dozen or so blooms from cultivated specimens. In 1999, a flowering plant at the Huntington Botanical Gardens in San Marino, Calif., brought in 76,000 visitors.

Realizing its potential, the U.S. Botanic Garden carefully planned how it would introduce its floral superstar. When the plant's handlers announced blooming was imminent, the garden alerted the press, set up time-lapse cameras and began recording the plant's journey into blossom. A telephone hot line was established, and daily photos and progress reports were posted on the Web site.

In such high-speed, high-tech times, the idea of flower-as-destination might seem far-fetched.

But the titan arum is no ordinary plant. Its flower is actually the world's largest "unbranched inflorescence," a compound flower composed of smaller blooms, both male and female, grouped around the plant's central shaft, says Christine Flanagan, public programs manager at the garden.

But the titan arum is better known for creating enough of a stink to attract the carrion insects that pollinate it. The flower's scent is so exceedingly foul, in fact, that Indonesians call it the corpse flower.

Conversation piece

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Early last week, however, it was dubbed "Mr. Pokey" by impatient visitors awaiting its bloom. Although the plant had grown almost 20 inches in two weeks and a series of photographs showed that its bud-shaped form was noticeably plumper, the untrained eye could detect little of consequence.

Hours before the flower began to reveal itself, Washington geneticist Mike Daly and his friend Scott Wilson made their third visit to the site. They had seen a titan arum bloom in London and were eager to see another. But they were also getting fed up with Mr. Pokey.

"It might really be made out of rubber and they're just bringing it out for show," Wilson joked.

It was perhaps more satisfactory for first-timers. Rising majestically over a host of anthuriums and other related plants, the titan arum displayed a gray-brown spadix, or central club, emerging from the still closed spathe, a sheathing of green trimmed with maroon.

It was quite the conversation piece.

One topic was its legendary fragrance: "This is the plant that smells like rotting meat when it opens," 15-year-old Chase Greenlee informed his fellow 4H-ers from Galion, Ohio.

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Another was its exotic appearance. Chant Shen Chent, who had come with a Taiwanese group demonstrating on behalf of the practice of Falun Gong, said: "I never seen this before. It is very strange. We like it. Marvelous. Beautiful."

Plant as metaphor provided another conversational thread. Ye Wang, a chemistry student from Cleveland, observed: "In China, we have a famous flower that only opens in the night for several hours. They use that kind of flower when they talk of fame which is temporary. Or power that is lost quickly."

Still others pondered the plant's physiology.

"I think it's otherworldly," said Tandy Martin of Arlington, Va. "It doesn't look like it's from here. That thing in the middle looks fleshy. It looks like a deer's leg. It's very weird."

"I think it looks like there's some big surprise in there, like a pinata," said her friend Susan Stirn.

"It does sort of look like papier mache," Tandy agreed.

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"I think it's sexual looking," commented a woman standing near them.

So did Odoardo Beccari, the botanist who first described the plant in 1878. He named it Amorphophallus titanum, which literally translates "gigantic shapeless male organ." He sent specimens to botanic gardens in Europe; the first flowering took place at Kew Gardens in London. The plants caused a sensation with the Victorians; young ladies were reportedly chastised if they showed too much interest.

A useful stench

Modern visitors seem equally curious about the odor the plant produces to attract the carrion flies, sweat bees and dung beetles that traditionally pollinate it. A relative of the skunk cabbage, the titan arum releases its aromatic oils by raising its internal temperature when it flowers. The odor wafts out in waves, or pulses, from an opening in the central column that naturalist David Attenborough, who saw the plant in Sumatra, compares to a factory chimney.

The titan arum hot line warned that the odor of the flower might offend those who get too close. Some employees of the garden who encountered the somewhat blooming flower reported it as malodorous but not unbearable. One described it as akin to the smell of the rendering plant she lived near as a child: "It's that sickly, sweet, rotting smell."

But it couldn't daunt the public. After Mr. Pokey began to bloom, the Botanic Garden extended its hours for two days to accommodate the hordes of extra visitors.

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"It's a rare occurrence," explained Flanagan. "And people love big stinky things."


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