John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
The city is all abuzz over news that a rare, incredibly odiferous Titan Arum has blossomed.
For a good week now, plant lovers and fans of the macabre have been carefully monitoring the Facebook page of "Chanel, the UCSB Titan Arum." Excitement ran high as UC Santa Barbara's greenhouse workers tending this monstrous plant – which heats up almost to human-body temperature prior to releasing a stench like poop and decaying meat – gave updates on its expected blossoming hour.
"More of me is red, and I smell faintly of mushrooms..." was the news from July 25.
"By 8pm Chanel was starting to smell like stinky socks, when I left at 9 she was really starting to reek!" was the word on Tuesday from Shelly Anglin Vizzolini, one of the so-called "corpse flower's" doting nurses. "I had to drive home with my windows down, put my clothes outside and take a shower just because I stood next to her! And she is just starting to 'warm up'!!"
By Wednesday bells were ringing and strobe lights flashing as the super-pungent flower started shooting off odors that spectators likened to rotting fat and "maybe a dead fish in a dirty diaper left in the sun." Others seemed at a loss for words, saying that the olfactory experience involved a mysterious "body" like a really foul wine, or simply, "Wow."
This is the second titan arum to blossom in the U.S. in recent days, with one going off in late July at the U.S. Botanic Garden in Washington, D.C. Just look at the swarm of adorers that flocked to it in the days before its halitotic yawn:
When Santa Barbara's arum reached peak scent on Wednesday, nearly 2,000 people packed into the greenhouse's parking lot, following signs pointing to the abomination. (Following the trail of flies probably would've also worked.) Judging from the comments they left on Facebook, they were mightily pleased with what they saw and inhaled. "What a privilege to see and smell Chanel! First reason I have had to come back to my alma mater in years!" enthused one woman. Another said she "was careful not to stand too close as my son looked like he really wanted to hug Chanel!!!"
For their part, students at UCSB described the odor as "disgusting," "pretty nasty," and in other ways mentioned in a university press release:
Other visitors said Chanel smelled like "French cheese" or "a dead rat in a wall." Alex Feldwinn, a computer technician in the Life Science Computing Group at UCSB said, "It really smells like a dead animal – not just a dead animal, but a rotting one." Edith Ogella, a longtime Santa Barbara resident, said, "It's breathtaking."
This was the first arum to bloom at UCSB since 2002, as the humongous stalks can take a decade to flower. Fans who didn't visit it this year might have a lengthy wait to catch the next stench explosion. The flower is now collapsing and the stink, its tenders regretfully report, is virtually gone.
But we'll always have the memories! Here's Chanel chillaxing with greenhouse manager Danica Taber on July 22:
A thermal image shows just how hot the central stalk grew on Tuesday. That flame-colored area was pulsing with about 91-degree heat, and the smells were nose-searing:
A webcam capture on Thursday afternoon showed the corpse flower in a sad state of deflation: