Unless you've been living somewhere underneath a Houston-area rock this month, you've no doubt heard about "Lois," the rare "corpse flower" that has been on display over the last couple of weeks at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.
If for no other reason than I was curious and wanted to see what all the fuss was about, I decided to go check out Lois for myself. Because I am an insomniac and also because I hate crowds, I decided to go in the wee hours of the morning - in this case, Thursday at about 2:45 am - to see the flower (the museum stayed open around the clock while Lois was in bloom). That worked out well; there were only a few other people there so I could spend as much time looking at the large flower (or, more technically, inflorescence, because it's actually a grouping of flowers on a single stem) at its location upstairs in the foyer before the entrance to the butterfly pavilion.
It hadn't fully opened and it hadn't given off its characteristic smell of rotting flesh yet, but it was nevertheless impressive in its size. The museum curator on hand that morning told me that it took seven years for Lois to grow from seed to flower.
Interesting enough. But I wanted the Complete Corpse Flower Experience, putrid stench and all.
So I decided to return a couple of nights later, after the flower had fully bloomed, to get a whiff of it for myself. I went back to the museum Saturday at about 3:30 am, thinking that, once again, the crowds would be sparse.
No such luck. Since the plant had fully bloomed and since it was the weekend, the museum was packed. The crowd was an eclectic mix of couples on late-night dates, groups of people who had just left the bars, and even families that had woken up early to see the flower.
The line was long and it was well after 4 am before I finally made it into the foyer to see the flower for myself. It didn't look quite as impressive as it had looked a couple of nights before - the bloom was beginning to wilt at this point - and the stench wasn't the overpowering experience I had expected. Lois did smell like decomposing flesh - if you've ever been around a dead animal, you know the smell - but the odor did not permeate the entire museum and you actually had to get pretty close to it to really smell it.
The flower gives off the scent of rotting flesh in order to attract carrion beetles in its native habitat of the Indonesian rainforest. The beetles, in turn, pollinate the plant so it can reproduce. Although commonly known as a "corpse flower," the actual name of the plant is titan arum. Its binomial name, Amorphophallus titanium, is rarely used because it literally means "giant misshapen penis."
In the interests of posterity, I had my picture taken next to this giant misshapen penis that smells like decaying flesh.
After leaving the foyer where the plant is located, visitors leave the museum by walking through the butterfly pavilion itself. I found this to be in many ways more interesting than looking at the corpse flower, because the rainforest-themed butterfly pavilion is a pleasantly evocative and mysterious space at night.
Charro, the museum's resident iguana, was in his cage for the night, tongue hanging out of his mouth as he slept. He was clearly not impressed by all the ruckus surrounding Lois.
The butterflies were obviously all dormant for the night, but if you looked carefully you could find them resting on the leaves. With the help of my camera flash I caught this blue morpho in repose. In retrospect, I wish I would have come to see the flower a couple of hours later, so that I could have been in the pavilion when the sun rose and the butterflies began to stir. That would have been a neat experience. As it was, however, I left the museum shortly after 5 am and well before sunrise.
"Lois" has since completely wilted and the round-the-clock festivities at the museum are now over.
Was Lois the Corpse Flower a revenue-generating publicity gimmick for the Houston Museum of Natural Science? Of course. Is that a bad thing? Of course not. The city's educational institutions deserve some occasional publicity, and the fact that the museum got tens of thousands of people - many of whom would likely not have otherwise set foot there - to come see such a rare and unique wonder of nature (seriously, a giant flower that smells like rotting flesh!), even at odd hours of the night, is actually a pretty admirable accomplishment.
Museum curators say that they don't know if Lois will ever put out another bloom, so it could be a long time before Houstonians have another opportunity to encounter a giant, stinky flower.