Over the past few days, like so many of my fellow Minnesotans, I have been captivated by the drama of University of Minnesota’s so-called “corpse flower,” a plant that, when it blooms, emits an odor so noxious and putrid that people will stand in line for the opportunity to smell it.
People do this, it must be said, knowing full well that once they get a whiff, they will not be able to un-smell the corpse flower’s sensational stink. And they do it knowing—hoping, in fact—that when the flower’s terrible stench breaches their nasal cavity, they will recoil in disgust, amazed that anything could possibly smell that foul. Like watching a horror movie or eating lutefisk, the attraction is repulsion, the chance to experience something so grotesque that it makes people want to wretch.
The opposite is also true, of course. People visit the corpse flower to test their mettle against the plant—to see if they are strong enough to withstand its olfactory attack. It’s easy to spot these people. They’re the ones who, as they are exiting, mumble to the people still in line, “It’s not as bad as I thought it was going to be.” Meaning, of course, that they could endure worse smells—that they confronted the dreaded corpse flower and, having inhaled its hellish gases, pronounced themselves . . . disappointed.
Those who find the corpse flower’s icky essence as unpleasant as advertised can be overheard searching for comparisons: “It smells like rotting cabbage.” “Not so much rancid meat as rotten eggs.” “Like day-old roadkill.” “Jeremy’s gym socks.” “Dead mice.” “Sour milk.” “Teen spirit.”
Why people are attracted to things that disgust them may go a long way toward explaining the whole Donald Trump phenomenon, but it does not explain why I stopped reading about the corpse flower’s infamous awfulness and decided to visit it myself.
First of all, these flowers only bloom once every seven to 10 years, so the event is rare. I missed the bloom of the corpse flower at St. Paul’s Como Conservatory a few years ago, so I was determined to catch the one at the University of Minnesota’s Biological Sciences greenhouse.
Second—and most important—I am more of an observer of human nature than an active participant, and it is extremely entertaining to watch people’s reactions when they smell something truly awful. It’s funny. Sure, I figured I’d have to smell the thing eventually if I stood there for more than a minute or two, but I was more interested in watching other people encounter the corpse flower. Especially little kids. They don’t hold anything back. When a little kid smells something disgusting, you know it. Teenage girls, too, are fun; they can draw out a “grooooooooooosssssss!!!” like you can’t believe.
Then the moment came. It was my turn to enter the corpse-flower enclosure and inhale the breath of Beelzebub. At first I smelled nothing. Then I ventured closer. Nothing. Then I stuck my nose right up to the stamen and thought I smelled something—something not quite as bad as my refrigerator, but close.
Nobody else smelled anything either. It was, in a word . . . disappointing.
Alas, though the corpse flower is an impressive botanical specimen all by itself, it only stinks for 36 hours or so. If you don’t catch it early, when its pheremonal funk is ripe, it peters out fairly quickly and you’re left with a giant jungle plant that smells like every other giant jungle plant. Nothing special, that is.
It’s going to be years before another corpse-flower blooms in the Twin Cities; I just hope I live to smell about it. In the meantime, it’s clear there is a huge demand for awful olfactory experiences. Having seen the lines for the corpse flower, I’m convinced Cub Foods could charge people to hang their heads in a dumpster out back for a few minutes, especially during the summer months. Likewise, the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul could generate extra revenue by daring people to stand around the trash cans at any local dog park, or charge admission for tours of the local sewer system.
Of course, the upcoming election offers an excellent opportunity for everyone to experience something akin to the corpse flower’s captivating yuck-factor. All you have to do is hold your nose and vote.