San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park prepares for rare corpse flower bloom

Inside the muggy West Gallery at the Conservatory of Flowers in San Francisco, an endangered plant standing 54 inches tall is just beginning to blush. Suspended above the specimen is a camera livestreaming the progress of its growth to the conservatory’s followers, who are eagerly watching and waiting. It’s only a matter of hours until Chanel, the titan arum – better known as a corpse flower – will draw hundreds of guests to Golden Gate Park for a stinky spectacle.Some visitors liken a corpse flower’s natural musk to moldy cheese, sweaty gym socks or rotting vegetables in a compost bin. But Sarah Sawtelle, the manager of engagement at the Conservatory of Flowers, thinks it’s a little more refined than that. “There’s many different layers to the smell, and it varies a little bit over the course of the bloom, too,” she told me as we stood in front of Chanel on Thursday afternoon; the plant’s moniker is a tongue-in-cheek reference to the designer fragrance. “It’s most stinky at the beginning, but even as it starts to taper off, you can smell different elements of the odor. It’s like a fine wine.” That said, there’s a reason the corpse flower gets its name.“It’s like if a rodent finds its way into your attic or crawl space and perishes. I don’t know if you’ve had that experience of being like, ‘Oh, something definitely died in here.’ But I think that’s a pretty good analogy,” Sawtelle said. “It creates a really horrific stench.”The plant is native to Sumatra, and its population is rapidly declining, with an estimation of fewer than 1,000 left in the wild. That makes it a popular choice for botanical gardens to propagate, despite its trademark aroma, which can travel up to several miles in its natural habitat, Sawtelle said. It’s a way for the plant to send a signal to pollinators like dung beetles and flesh flies.However, the bloom is fleeting. Lasting no longer than 48 hours, people travel far and wide for the chance to experience it for themselves. The last time one of the Conservatory of Flowers’ five corpse flowers bloomed was in August 2020, and because of the pandemic, they had to set up a plexiglass barrier near the entrance for viewing. But it was still a highly attended event.“People come in droves,” Sawtelle said. “There’s something about this plant that awakens a curiosity and excitement. It’s a celebratory feeling, even though it’s sort of a morbid plant.” And last year, when Alameda nursery owner Solomon Leyva brought his own corpse flower to a local gas station for public viewing, the line stretched halfway down the block.Undoubtedly, the plant exudes a magnetic quality that delights as much as it disgusts. It’s a fascinating juxtaposition – and that’s not lost on the Conservatory of Flowers’ chief nursery specialist Kristen Natoli.“It’s the hook. It’s the plant world hook,” Natoli said, studying Chanel for a moment. “It’s so beautiful, and yet it smells so bad. I think that contradiction is part of what draws people in. But for us, we’re just wanting to connect people with plants. And once we get them in the door, all these stories unravel about them.”Sawtelle said that before she was hired at the Conservatory in 2019, she waited in line for “up to an hour” to see a corpse flower. It’s possible that even more people will show up now that San Francisco residents receive free admission. However, a $13 fee for adults still stands during the Conservatory’s extended hours, which will be in place until 9 p.m. to accommodate an influx of visitors on the night of the bloom and the following day.And for now, it’s anyone’s guess as to when Chanel will bloom. Sawtelle said that conservatory staff first started to notice a deep red color – the blush – appearing near the top of the plant on Sunday.“When we see that, we’re on high alert,” she said, noting the plant usually blooms three to five days after the color appears. “I’d be surprised if it bloomed after Sunday. I hear a lot of people say Friday, but I’m going to put my money on Saturday just so I can be an outlier. But we don’t know! That’s the magic of it. We have to play along with the suspense.”

Inside the muggy West Gallery at the Conservatory of Flowers in San Francisco, an endangered plant standing 54 inches tall is just beginning to blush.

Suspended above the specimen is a camera livestreaming the progress of its growth to the conservatory’s followers, who are eagerly watching and waiting. It’s only a matter of hours until Chanel, the titan arum – better known as a corpse flower – will draw hundreds of guests to Golden Gate Park for a stinky spectacle.

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Some visitors liken a corpse flower’s natural musk to moldy cheese, sweaty gym socks or rotting vegetables in a compost bin. But Sarah Sawtelle, the manager of engagement at the Conservatory of Flowers, thinks it’s a little more refined than that.

“There’s many different layers to the smell, and it varies a little bit over the course of the bloom, too,” she told me as we stood in front of Chanel on Thursday afternoon; the plant’s moniker is a tongue-in-cheek reference to the designer fragrance. “It’s most stinky at the beginning, but even as it starts to taper off, you can smell different elements of the odor. It’s like a fine wine.”

That said, there’s a reason the corpse flower gets its name.

“It’s like if a rodent finds its way into your attic or crawl space and perishes. I don’t know if you’ve had that experience of being like, ‘Oh, something definitely died in here.’ But I think that’s a pretty good analogy,” Sawtelle said. “It creates a really horrific stench.”

The plant is native to Sumatra, and its population is rapidly declining, with an estimation of fewer than 1,000 left in the wild. That makes it a popular choice for botanical gardens to propagate, despite its trademark aroma, which can travel up to several miles in its natural habitat, Sawtelle said. It’s a way for the plant to send a signal to pollinators like dung beetles and flesh flies.

However, the bloom is fleeting. Lasting no longer than 48 hours, people travel far and wide for the chance to experience it for themselves. The last time one of the Conservatory of Flowers’ five corpse flowers bloomed was in August 2020, and because of the pandemic, they had to set up a plexiglass barrier near the entrance for viewing. But it was still a highly attended event.

“People come in droves,” Sawtelle said. “There’s something about this plant that awakens a curiosity and excitement. It’s a celebratory feeling, even though it’s sort of a morbid plant.”

And last year, when Alameda nursery owner Solomon Leyva brought his own corpse flower to a local gas station for public viewing, the line stretched halfway down the block.

Undoubtedly, the plant exudes a magnetic quality that delights as much as it disgusts. It’s a fascinating juxtaposition – and that’s not lost on the Conservatory of Flowers’ chief nursery specialist Kristen Natoli.

“It’s the hook. It’s the plant world hook,” Natoli said, studying Chanel for a moment. “It’s so beautiful, and yet it smells so bad. I think that contradiction is part of what draws people in. But for us, we’re just wanting to connect people with plants. And once we get them in the door, all these stories unravel about them.”

Sawtelle said that before she was hired at the Conservatory in 2019, she waited in line for “up to an hour” to see a corpse flower. It’s possible that even more people will show up now that San Francisco residents receive free admission. However, a $13 fee for adults still stands during the Conservatory’s extended hours, which will be in place until 9 p.m. to accommodate an influx of visitors on the night of the bloom and the following day.

And for now, it’s anyone’s guess as to when Chanel will bloom. Sawtelle said that conservatory staff first started to notice a deep red color – the blush – appearing near the top of the plant on Sunday.

“When we see that, we’re on high alert,” she said, noting the plant usually blooms three to five days after the color appears. “I’d be surprised if it bloomed after Sunday. I hear a lot of people say Friday, but I’m going to put my money on Saturday just so I can be an outlier. But we don’t know! That’s the magic of it. We have to play along with the suspense.”

Contributed by local news sources

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