WASHINGTON -- A long line of people snaked around the block, trying to get into the U.S. Botanic Garden before its late closing on Monday night. They were not going to be successful. Just before 8 p.m., a harried Botanic Garden employee insisted, "You can't make it inside tonight. Come back tomorrow." Another employee muttered her worry that there was going to be a riot.
In Washington evening weather that felt like an outdoor hothouse, people just kept waiting. Such is the draw of the world's stinkiest flower, a 250-pound Indonesian giant that gives off the scent of rotting flesh when it's ready to attract beetles and other pollinators -- on its own unpredictable and irregular cycle.
After several weeks of anxious, and unscented, expectation, the Botanic Garden's 7-year-old titan arum was in full bloom for the first time in its life on Sunday afternoon. "Peak smell" was anticipated for Monday. By people, anyway.
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"We don't have the tropical beetle species that would be present in Sumatra" and attracted to the odor, said Dr. Ari Novy, the Botanic Garden's public programs manager. What we do have are curious humans, by the thousands.
Novy said that from July 11, when the Botanic Garden put the corpse flower on display, until Monday, July 22, some 120,000 people entered the facility. Once the books are examined, Novy expects to find that Monday brought in the greatest crowd of the garden's nearly 200-year history. The flower's live stream has drawn some 500,000 more.
Novy said he "couldn't be happier" with the response. But some of Monday's visitors seemed disappointed by the dramatic 8-foot-tall flower.
Osk Honeycutt -- originally from Iceland, more recently from Manassas, Va. -- came with her daughter and husband. She told HuffPost that the plant "doesn't smell as bad as I'd hoped."
"I've been cheated," said Alexander Walker, also from Northern Virginia. "I smell people, I don't smell plant."
Walker's wife, meanwhile, was talking on the phone near the flower and waving. "She's here for the live stream," Walker said, explaining that his sister-in-law was watching the family interact with the titan arum online.
But others seemed happy to be there, taking photos of themselves holding their noses, even though the scent of the air was not so much corpse -- and not even much sweaty human -- but pleasantly flowery.
"It's like a rock star," said Novy, who hopes that those who come to see and smell (or not) the corpse flower will stay to enjoy some of the Botanic Garden's other compelling exhibits: a carnivorous plant collection; an artificially inseminated cacao tree; a very old and very big vessel fern said to stem from 1842; delicious-smelling ylang ylang; and a giant stapelia, another type of corpse flower albeit one that blooms every year.
The less accommodating corpse flower's scientific name is Amorphophallus titanum, meaning "giant misshapen penis" -- a perhaps somewhat ironic name for a plant that won't reproduce, at least naturally, and that is also more delicate than its impressive size and legendary stench would suggest.
Interested visitors should get in line immediately. D.C.'s corpse flower is "showing the first signs of senescing," said Novy, signaling that the bloom's time is coming to an end and "the flower will fully fall apart."
Titan arum will then "enter a dormant stage," said Novy, during which it will exist as an underground tuber, having expended all its energy creating a flower designed to attract pollinators that did not come. The Botanic Garden staff will steward it through its weakened phase.
"This plant is just putting on a show," said Novy. "It's literally and figuratively a fruitless show. But what a show."
Catch the show online in this amazing time-lapse video:
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