Last Tuesday night, people lined up outside the Chicago Botanic Gardens to catch a whiff of a flower that smells more like rotting meat.
The crowds were waiting to see Alice, a titan arum – also known as the corpse flower. The flower is native to Sumatra, Indonesia, and when it blooms, it smells horrible. Mike Plishka, a medical engineer from Lake View who came to the garden in Glencoe to see Alice bloom, said the scent reminded him of smelly socks.
Titan arums are also huge; according to the garden’s website, Alice was 55 inches tall on Tuesday, and 35 inches around. Alice isn’t even quite as big as her sibling, Spike, the corpse flower who attracted so much media attention and nearly 75,000 visitors just a few weeks ago.
Despite, or perhaps because of, the attention, Spike failed to open, which made Alice the first corpse flower to bloom at the garden and in Chicago, said outdoor floriculturist Tim Pollak.
Pollak, who has worked at the Botanic Garden for 15 years, gained the nickname “Titan Tim” while working with Spike, and it has stuck. Visitors to the Regenstein Center where Alice is on display recognized Pollak and called by him the nickname.
Pollak said Alice took the garden by surprise.
“She opened in the middle of the night, but they usually bloom starting in the afternoon. She did the reverse,” Pollak said.
Pollak said he came in at nearly two in the morning on Tuesday after learning Alice had started to bloom, and that he would likely stay until two Wednesday morning when the garden closes.
Pollak said the smell was overwhelming when he first arrived.
“It was intense. I could smell it outside, six doors out,” Pollak said of the pungent odor, which attracts the insects that pollinate the flower.
Corpse flowers have both male and female parts, so why did the garden choose to name the flower Alice?
“It’s a tradition that gardens do, personalizing the plant,” Pollak said. “A true scientist often cringes on that. They know it’s both, I know it’s both. It’s a fun thing.”
Pollak said the flower, which is rare even in the wild, only has about 100 documented blooms in the U.S. Pollack also said the titan arum is threatened because of factors like overpopulation, palm oil farming, and pollution.
Because they are so rare, the garden pollinated Alice manually with pollen donated from Spike and from the Denver Botanic Garden. Pollak said they hope to widen the genetic diversity of the plant and get Alice to bear fruit.
Heeyoung Kim, a botanical illustrator, also came to see Alice bloom and to draw her throughout the day. Kim teaches botanical illustration at the garden and on the day Alice bloomed, spent hours at teh garden drawing her.
“It looks simple but it’s not easy,” Kim said. “It keeps changing. The midsection got fatter in the afternoon so I had to change a lot. It smells, so I brought my perfume.”
Plishka, who came to see Alice with his wife Debbie, said the couple had visited Spike many times and were even more excited to see Alice actually bloom. Both agreed the flower “smelled like roadkill,” but were just two of many in the crowd gathered in the hot, humid greenhouse, crowded around the plant taking photos.
As the Plishkas left the greenhouse and stepped into the cooler hallway air, they took a deep breath.
“Fresh air!” Debbie exclaimed. But her enthusiasm for Alice may outweigh the scent.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if we come back,” she said.