Thirteen or maybe 14 years ago, when I was living in New York, I took home an unusual-looking plant. I visited my uncle’s mother, who lived in Manhattan surrounded by cactus-like plants that were surprisingly soft, without any spines. She gave me a small one for my apartment in Brooklyn.
My taste in plants was not diverse at the time. The new plant, whose name I didn’t know, sat by my window alongside a spider plant and a straggly ficus tree. For a few years it just sat there until, for no apparent reason, it produced a gigantic bud. It flowered on September 11, 2001 and looked something like this:
That is what it looks like today, and I now know that it’s called a carrion plant, which I learned recently after spotting one in Chicago’s Garfield Park Conservatory. Each flower is a wide yellow-green star with a mesmerizing, pink pattern. If you stare into the petals, it feels like staring into an abyss. But the flowers stink and are covered in small hairs that attract flies – my husband says the bulb reminds him of Audrey 2 from Little Shop of Horrors. And it’s all very fleeting because the petals on my plant start to contort and shrivel after just a day or two.
This plant gives me a charge each time it opens because it is so unusual and because it bloomed when it did. It has flowered every year since, and I mark September by the changing weather and the carrion bloom.
Now that a decade has gone by since the attacks, we’re putting that era behind us. It was a confusing, scary time, with sadness magnified by fear and a feeling of vulnerability. I found solace that fall in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, which if I remember correctly lifted its $3 admission charge and invited everyone in for free. Someone working there clearly knew what I did not yet understand, that plants can help heal by blooming in their predictable, expected, cyclical order.
My plant has grown and now drapes over the side of its terra cotta pot. I barely water it, but it seems to require little care. Now every September my carrion flower revives that feeling, and I see why even a foul-smelling flower has a place in this world. Plants aren’t always pretty, but they can be remarkably resilient and reassuring.