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Rare blooms attract crowds to showhouse; Ontario gardens' specimens are among tallest in world

There's a new attraction in Niagara Falls, Ont.

It doesn't involve casinos or wax museums. And nobody will be wire-walking over it.

But visitors have flooded an Ontario botanical garden to see what are being billed as two of the world's tallest -- and most rare -- flowers.

Oh, one more thing. They're called "corpse flowers" because they smell like rotting flesh.

"It's so unusual," said Karl J. Niklas, professor of plant biology at Cornell University. "You're not going to see something like this, possibly again."

"People should not miss this opportunity," he added. "It's like a freak of nature."

The plant species, called the Amorphophallus titanum, or titan arum, is native to a small part of western Indonesia, and until 1989 had only bloomed a total of 21 times worldwide.

The Niagara Floral Showhouse, on the Niagara Parkway, has two of the rare plants. One of the plants grew to be 8 feet tall and bloomed Friday night, which officials said was the 150th bloom in world history.

It left a distinct impression on the minds -- and snouts -- of those who witnessed it.

"It's [like] rotting meat or decaying animal," said greenhouse manager Joan Cornelius.

Wayne Hoeschle, caretaker of the plants, compared the odor to a pile of dead mice.

"It's a little rancid smell, but well worth it," he said.

Elijah Mitsuhashi, of Sapporo, Japan, climbed up on the edge of the wooden barrier to get his own whiff. Mitsuhashi is a minister back home.

"I wanted to compare," he said. "Because it's an unusual smell."

The plant emits the stench to attract beetles and flies that feed on decaying animals. Its deep purple flower -- which resembles blood -- also attracts the insects to pollinate it.

The showhouse's second plant is growing an inch per day and could bloom by next Tuesday or Wednesday, though officials were wary of making an absolute prediction. The blooming period lasts about 24 hours and happens once every few years if the plant is healthy -- or in some cases, never again.

"It's huge," Cornelius said. "For a botanical garden, this is about the biggest event you can have."

The floral showhouse has extended its hours to meet the steady stream of people coming to see the plant. It is now open from 9:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily, and the Niagara Parks Commission allows curious visitors to register for email updates.

The plant, which has been called a "phallic flower" for its shape, is expensive and difficult to keep alive for so long, Niklas said, requiring daily feeding and watering in a greenhouse, not to mention a large amount of space in a plant display.

They can also take up to two decades to bloom, he said, though Canada's two plants are just six years old. Four other plants at the greenhouse are younger and have not reached blooming age.

"It's comparable, in some respects, to keeping a large animal, like an elephant," Niklas said. It is not technically a flower, experts note, because it's considered a cluster of flowers. But in 2010, a titan arum broke the Guinness World Record for tallest bloom after growing to be 10 feet, 2 inches tall.

The holder of that record, Louis Ricciardiello of New Hampshire, took out an advertisement to sell parts of his collection in a botany trade magazine last year, and the Canadian botanical garden expressed interest.

"I just talked to him over a number of weeks, and he said, 'You know what? I'll just donate them to you,' " Cornelius said of Ricciardiello, the record-holder. "I couldn't believe it."

Niklas, the professor, understands the excitement. A titan arum than bloomed at Cornell in March attracted thousands of people and lines stretching down blocks, he said.

"A lot of the time, I work really hard to bloom something, and nobody notices it," said Hoeschle, the caretaker. "But this, with people saying it's the world's largest flower, it's been good."

With officials reluctant to predict exactly when the second flower will bloom, people have been coming from all directions to get their glimpse. As recent as seven years ago, only a dozen of the plants were believed to be in the United States.

"I think it's pure nature that we never see," said Diane Murphy of Woodbridge, Ont. "The fact that it's [a few] days, that's it, that makes it so special."