Critical DMs: The arts team critiques the smell of Horace the corpse flower

Plant in a conservatory
The corpse flower at Como Conservatory on Tuesday, refusing to bloom despite the MPR Arts Teams many requests.
Max Sparber | MPR News

Critical DMs are lightly edited Slack conversations by members of the MPR News arts team about Minnesota art and culture.

This week, Arts Editor Max Sparber and Senior Arts Reporter Alex V. Cipolle discuss the corpse flower at the Como Zoo and Conservatory, which has been threatening to bloom for several days now but has refused to open.

The Amorphophallus titanum is otherwise known as the corpse flower.
The Amorphophallus titanum, otherwise known as the "corpse flower," bloomed Wednesday, March 20, 2019 at the University of Minnesota College of Biological Sciences Conservatory. The university's corpse flower is nicknamed Chauncy.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News 2019

Max Sparber: So you know how a corpse flower is like Madonna?

Alex Cipolle: Loves the spotlight?

Sparber: Notoriously late.

Cipolle: Lol. Okay, so speaking of music icons that the corpse flower is like. When Horace blooms, it’s really going to be like Cardi B in vintage Mugler at the 2019 Grammys.

I’m telling ya, Horace needs a red carpet and people yelling, “Who are you wearing?”

Cardi B wearing a dress on the red carpet.
Offset (left) and Cardi B, wearing a corpse flower-like dress, attend the 61st Annual GRAMMY Awards at Staples Center on Feb. 10, 2019 in Los Angeles.
Dan MacMedan | Getty Images

Sparber: There is corpse flower mania. We went to see it Tuesday morning and there was a line of people passing it, wrinkling their noses and looking disappointed that it hadn’t bloomed yet.

However, its smell preceded it.

Cipolle: I feel like the kids were happy though. Kids like stinky things. And man did this smell. I’m slightly nauseated from the stench still. And I feel like I’m carrying it with me.

The signage said its chemical compounds give it a smell of cheese, garlic and sweaty feet.

Sparber: I thought this would be a good opportunity to expand our critical language. Specifically, the language of discussing odors.

So I looked up the terminology to discuss perfumes and colognes.

Cipolle: Oooh, go on.

Sparber: I thought I might share that terminology, and then we could use it to try to assess the corpse flower’s notoriously pungent smell, which will just get stronger for at least a day after it blooms.

Cipolle: And we know the smell helps attract its pollinators, carrion beetles and flies. Because those two insects like rotting flesh, and, well, corpse flowers.

Sparber: Perhaps this will help carrion beetles when they want to discuss Horace critically.

So the first term is sillage. This is the scent that lingers when somebody leaves the room. If a fragrance has strong sillage, it is said to “project well.”

I think Horace projects extremely well.

Cipolle: Sillage. Not like Horace will ever leave a room. He makes folks come to him.

Sparber: But we did carry the smell with us when we left.

Cipolle: Yes, I feel it in the back of my throat still.

Sparber: One can imagine Horace climbing into a limo and still being able to smell him hours later.

It’s probably the strongest sillage I have ever encountered, and I used to wear Drakkar Noir.

Cipolle: Yeah, it’s right up there with an Abercrombie & Fitch store

Sparber: And there is a related phrase: longevity. How long it lingers on the skin. I don’t think this one counts for Horace because it’s just the natural odor. But I think it lingers on the skin of viewers.

Cipolle: I’m tempted to ask someone to smell me but I fear that is not appropriate in the workplace.

Sparber: I wonder if we came in smelling like we had just been to a crime scene. Or a foot massage place.

Cipolle: I mean, they do say rotting flesh a lot. But I’d say it was more the cheese and feet smell. With some rotten eggs thrown in.

Sparber: One person said it smelled like her son’s feet, but the feet smelled worse.

Cipolle: Moms speak truth.

Sparber: A lot of good commentary from the passers-by.

Cipolle: That one lady has been tracking corpse flowers all over. She said it’s one of 100 in the world. An AI web search says one in 1000. It is listed as endangered though.

According to the United States Botanic Garden Dot Gov: “The corpse flower (Amorphophallus titanum) is listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), with an estimation of fewer than 1,000 individuals remaining in the wild.”

I would say our Horace is one in a million, though. A real prima donna.

Sparber: Let’s get into the real meat of the perfumer game: notes. All perfumes and colognes have three notes: top, heart and base.

Which sounds like three hard rock bands from the Seventies.

Cipolle: Haha, yes.

Sparber: Top notes are what you smell immediately. I would say Horace starts with notes of earth and sweat.  

Cipolle: And we could sense that before we even got to his building.

Sparber: Yep, a very musty odor, a little like freshy dug dirt or an unfinished basement after a rain.

Cipolle: Okay, what’s heart?

Two people in a conservatory with plants
MPR News Arts Team members Alex V. Cipolle (left) and Max Sparber at the Como Conservatory on Tuesday, hoping the corpse flower will bloom.
Como Zoo and Conservatory livestream

Sparber: Heart notes are more rounded and complex notes after the top notes fade. For me, this is where the foot odors first became noticeable. Strong smell of toe.

Cipolle: For me, it’s cheese. Like a parmesan that’s turned.

Sparber: Like a green parmesan. One that you throw out immediately.

How close are foot and cheese smells? 

Cipolle: Very close.

Sparber: I feel like today I realized an odor connection I have never noticed before.

Cipolle: I wonder what wine would pair well with Horace’s odor?

Sparber: A sauternes or port. They go well with stinky cheese.

Cipolle: Mmmmmm.

Sparber: We should sneak some in and see if it affects our experience.

Cipolle: Tonight, at midnight.

Sparber: We did feel like there should be a cheese and wine tray at the opening. They had a velvet rope in front of Horace like a Dutch Masters painting.

Cipolle: It needs red carpet. It needs a selfie light ring.

I was struck by how large Horace is. Like, “Little Shop of Horrors” big.

Sparber: All right, base notes. These are the fullest and longest lasting.

For me, what lingered is a smell I can only describe as “plant.”

Cipolle: Interesting. For me, it’s sour and sulfur.

Sparber: I got some woodsy and a strange sweetness, like a hint of spice. Plus whatever “green” smells like.

The corpse plant triggered synesthesia in me.

Cipolle: I feel like it’s a prehistoric smell. Like something the dinosaurs would have sniffed at

Sparber: It really is. It looks and smells like something primordial.

Cipolle: Well, I walked away impressed. I kind of miss him already.

Sparber: I think were I to pick perfume smells to associate with it, I would go with “fougère,” which is woodsy and herbal, but with a lot of notes of aromatic and then a solid wallop of foot. 

Cipolle: Fougère is the French word for fern.

Sparber: I’m frankly astonished Demeter doesn’t have a Corpse Flower scent. They have “funeral home.” They have “dirt.”

Cipolle: Huge oversight.

Sparber: Call me, Demeter. I can help here.

Cipolle: I love that a stinky flower has stolen our hearts, even with peak Timberwolves celebrations.

Sparber: And with that, I think we’re done.

Cipolle: Smell you later.

The corpse flower is seen
The corpse flower is seen at Como Park Zoo and Conservatory on May 9 in St. Paul.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

Fragrance Review: The Corpse Flower (Amorphophallus titanum)

Name: Horace

Sillage: Extremely strong. Horace projects its scent, enveloping the entire room and even lingering on visitors long after they leave. This is one of the most potent fragrances in terms of sillage, comparable to a strong cologne like Drakkar Noir or the pervasive scent in an Abercrombie & Fitch store.

Longevity: The scent clings to the skin and clothing of those who encounter it, making it almost impossible to forget. The odor has remarkable staying power.

Top notes: Upon first encounter, Horace greets you with a powerful musty odor reminiscent of freshly dug earth and sweat. This immediate scent is intense, evoking the aroma of an unfinished basement after a rainstorm.

Heart notes: As the top notes settle, the more complex and rounded heart notes emerge. Here, the smell transitions to strong odors of cheese and feet. The scent is akin to overripe parmesan or turned cheese, providing a deeply pungent and somewhat nauseating experience.

Base notes: The longest-lasting and most profound notes of Horace reveal a combination of sour, sulfurous elements mixed with a woodsy, green plant aroma. There is also a faint hint of sweetness and spice, adding a strange yet fascinating depth to the overall scent.

Accord: The corpse flower’s fragrance can be described as a fougère, a blend of woodsy and herbal notes, with a dominating presence of sour, cheesy and sulfuric aromas. It is a bold and unconventional scent profile that commands attention and leaves a lasting impression.

Overall impression: Horace, the corpse flower, is a fascinating study in the power of scent to evoke strong reactions and attract specific pollinators. It is a true prima donna in the world of botanical fragrances.

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