My frenemy; or, Chanel the corpse flower


Amorphophallus_titanum_-_Botanischer_Garten_der_Universität_Basel_07Oh, Chanel, you were such a tease. Maybe I should have figured that out from your fancy name, or from your Facebook page. When I look back, it’s not that you posted anything actually untrue, but you did get me all excited about your debut, your flowering, your signature scent. You were constantly updating the hours you were available; there was even a webcam to show what you were up to every five minutes. Looking back, it any wonder how worked up I was about finally having the chance to meet you?

But then: the Facebook page. I should have known from just that. How many plants have a social media presence?

Here’s what happened. Last week, I saw that the UCSB Biology Greenhouse was open this weekend. You weren’t ready, not yet, but I wanted to have a chance to see you, you know, before.

And I’d have competition. Others were sending you mash notes on Facebook, like this: Shhh…don’t tell anyone, my husband and I have a love affair with you, Chanel! We’re dropping everything when you decide to bloom! I want to experience your smell!

I rallied the kids, telling them we were going to see a special plant, an enormous flower, an extremely rare species. They were mildly interested.

It’s really stinky, I said. They were game.

IMG_1802One post said you might open that weekend, so on Sunday, we rallied over to campus. Even getting to you was suspenseful—signs pointed the way, but one sign lead to another, lead to another, until our heads were about to explode with anticipation. That could have been just me—my kids might have needed a snack.

When we got there, you were still closed. Impressive, yes. You were very tall. Elegant, I would even say. But not stinky. The most heart-stopping moment wasn’t seeing you, but when my older son nearly pulled a twenty-foot long metal table covered with plants down on himself.

We returned home, slightly demoralized. But I’m persistent, Chanel. I had an extremely awkward blind date with this guy in college, but I kept trying, and now we’re married. And just look at how I’m still writing this post as a direct address to a plant, which is only slightly less obnoxious than writing in second person. But I’m still doing it, Chanel. See? Persistent.

So when you said, “The smelling hour approaches!” on Tuesday night, I planned to be there as soon as you would accept visitors on Wednesday morning. I had a bit of a sticky moment trying to drop my older son off for preschool before coming—you’d gotten to him, too, he wanted to come—but we made a deal that, if you were really stinky, I’d bring him back after school was over.

This time, my younger son and I parked in a secret spot and made a beeline for the greenhouse. No signs along a winding path were going to slow us down. Along the way, we sniffed the air for hints of you. Could that be…? No, it was just a garbage can.

When we rounded the corner, intent on seeing you, we were stopped short. A huge line snaked out from the entrance. Relatively huge, anyway, for a sleepy summertime campus in the middle of the morning. Compared to the crowds that poured in to the U.S. Botanic Garden last month to see the titan arum there, 1,900 people in a day is nothing.

Oh, I see that you just posted a new update: My spathe is senescing. Are you sure that’s not jealousy that’s making you wither?

That day, we waited. We had to see you. But there were some rumblings in the line. No one could smell anything.

One of the people in line with me, who worked in the chemistry department, said he’d heard that you peaked the night before, as you would do in your native Sumatran rainforest to attract insects. Later, I would read on your site that you smelled of “dead fish in a dirty diaper left to rot in the sun.”

When we finally got close, the air smelled like it always does. People mugged for smartphones, holding their noses and squinching up their eyes, even though there was no reason for it. We started to file out.

Smiling on the outside, crying on the inside.
Smiling on the outside, crying on the inside.

Then the wind changed, and there it was: a mildly disgusting smell. Just a dead fish, or just a dirty diaper left in the sun, maybe. Not both.

We left, feeling somewhat stunned. You hadn’t been that smelly after all. And your flower: it was reddish and biggish, but so what?

The highlight of meeting you hadn’t been the telltale smell, but the people we’d met, both the ones in line–my two-year-old got both stock tips and an explanation of how titan arums were falling prey to deforestation for palm plantations, which are certainly stinky but in a different way–and your tireless entourage, the people who had been doing your bidding around the clock for days. I mean, if that’s not over the line, even for a diva like yourself, I don’t know what is.

So, Chanel, I’m unliking you.  Humble brags and odorless red herrings—I can’t do it anymore. I’ll stick with actual people.

Wait—what’s that, you say? Your bloom was so short because you’ve likely been successfully pollinated, and you’re devoting your energy to your seeds. Do you think your kids will be on Facebook?


Top image: A titum arum from the University of Basel by Amada44

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2 thoughts on “My frenemy; or, Chanel the corpse flower

  1. Thanks for reading–and yes, I was thinking people were going to be swooning and puking everywhere, but no such luck. But still, I know I’ll have to see if Chanel’s progeny are more stinky than she was…

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