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Corpse flower mania is in full bloom in Denver

Corpse flower mania is in full bloom in Denver
More than 12,000 people waited as long as five hours to see and smell the blooming corpse flower at the Denver Botanic Gardens on Aug. 19. (Andy Cross / Denver Post)

Thousands of people turned out this week for a glimpse, or better yet, a sniff of "Stinky the Corpse Flower," a towering tropical plant that reeks of rotting flesh and whose bloom has become a citywide obsession.

Lines began forming outside the Denver Botanic Gardens at 4:30 a.m. Wednesday after viewers from around the world saw the enormous flower unfold on live-streaming video.

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"This is the biggest single day in the gardens' history," spokeswoman Erin Bird said. "I think human curiosity, especially in gross things, has really helped."

The spectacle is yet another score for the titan arum, aka corpse flower, an odoriferous cash cow and reliable crowd-pleaser in the often tame and manicured world of botanic gardens. Standing among the workaday cycads and orchids, the 5-foot-high Indonesian plant is a freakish, if alluring, anomaly.

And by Wednesday evening more than 12,000 people, many paying $12.50 each, had waited for up to five hours to see and be photographed in front of it.

"It's a rarity, it's an event," said Marie Parker Leatherwood, 87. "I thought it was fantastic."

This year, crowds showed up to witness a blooming corpse flower at UC Berkeley, and similar turnouts are expected next week at the Chicago Botanic Garden where a titan named Spike is set to bloom.

The Huntington Library in San Marino has 43 of the plants in its greenhouse. Five have flowered since 1999.

"We had 12,000 people show up the day our first flower bloomed," said Lisa Blackburn, communications coordinator for the Huntington. It was the largest turnout in the institution's history.

"The people in Denver asked our advice," she said. "I told them they needed a plan to deal with the crowds and then just go with the adventure."

The plants, she said, are "great for attendance," but aside from T-shirts, the Huntington does little merchandising around them.

"People are fascinated by them," Blackburn said. "It's really an amazing plant, and if it looks disgusting and smells gross, then that's just a bonus."

In Denver, corpse flower mania has mounted for weeks. Stinky is said to be the first of its kind to bloom in the Rocky Mountain West, an event anticipated like the birth of an especially rank-smelling baby.

The media have kept a constant vigil on the 15-year-old plant, and a streaming video camera monitored signs of imminent flowering.

The first stirrings began about 8 p.m. Tuesday, shortly before the botanic gardens closed. By 4:30 a.m., people were outside itching to get in, and by noon, 2,000 had lined up to see the flower.

A local television station reported that more than 7,000 people worldwide were watching its live stream of the blooming, briefly crashing its server.

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Still, a tinge of disappointment ran through some early risers pouring in to witness Stinky in action. The king-size plant perched behind a glass wall lacked the putrid punch many expected. Complimentary barf bags remained largely untouched.

Staffers swiftly opened a vent behind the plant, taped a "Smell Here" sign and ushered people back for the full stinking experience.

"I definitely see the similarities between what I smell here and what I smell down at the office," said Gary Broyles, who conducts autopsies for a living.

The botanic gardens' Twitter feed, using the hashtag #StinkyDBG, lighted up with photos and tweets, including one from the Denver Post's marijuana critic, Jake Browne.

"In honor of the corpse flower blooming at the Denver Botanic Gardens, here are five weed strains that exemplify how truly awful pot can smell," Browne tweeted.

That prompted this reply: "Dear Denver Corpse Flower Mania, you have officially jumped the shark."

A local pastry shop, Voodoo Doughnut, teamed with the botanic gardens to create a "corpse flower doughnut." At the gardens, T-shirts commemorating the event sold out in a matter of hours. Corpse flower plants were quickly snatched up for $75 each.

"For a while we were the top trending item on Facebook," Bird said.

By 7 p.m., the line stretched nearly the length of the gardens. Parking lots were full, but people kept coming until the place closed at midnight. A red carpet lay before the flower, lending a regal air to the proceedings. Visitors stopped, photographed Stinky and were moved along by security.

"We waited five hours, but it's a once-in-a-lifetime experience," said Elizabeth Erickson, 38. "The area in Sumatra where it grows is being deforested so quickly who knows how long they may exist?"

The crowds continued through Thursday, though the stench lessened.

For Denise Miller, 28, her encounter with the corpse flower prompted some introspection.

"I've been reflecting a lot on my own blooming process," she said. "I'm a late bloomer on my life's path. But even if you take a while to bloom, and you stink for one day, it's still worth the trip."

The flower is expected to collapse and die sometime Friday.

Kelly is a special correspondent.

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