By Deborah Zabarenko
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - For weeks, gawkers lined up at the U.S. Botanic Garden, hoping to be among the lucky ones to catch the show when a giant-sized corpse flower bloomed for the first time in seven years.
Its legendary stench was part of the attraction. On Sunday afternoon, when the 8-foot-tall (2.4-metre) Titan Arum plant finally began opening its petals, a smell almost strong enough to stop traffic lured tourists inside from the sweltering National Mall.
Since it went on display July 11 as a 4-foot-tall sprig, the corpse flower has attracted over 120,000 visitors, about one-tenth of the garden's annual number in less than two weeks.
It proved to be an unexpected hit during Washington's summer tourist season. For about 48 hours, long lines of visitors tried to inch close enough to get a whiff of a terrible smell that in the natural world attracts carrion eaters like dung beetles and flies.
The Botanic Garden's Laura Condeluci said most of the smell had abated by Tuesday, but the flower had attracted so much attention, it was continuing to draw throngs.
On social media, the flower - nicknamed Mortimer - chronicled its moments of glory and celebrity visitors on a Twitter feed at @DCTitanArum.
"As of this afternoon, both @DarrellIssa and @jaredpolis will have visited me," Mortimer tweeted on Tuesday, referring to a California Republican and a Colorado Democrat in the House of Representatives. "I have brought bipartisanship to DC. Almost time to retire."
Mortimer bloomed on Instagram, with #corpseflower a popular hashtag. There was live streaming video at http://www.usbg.gov/return-titan ("Due to high traffic, you may experience some difficulty with the web stream," the Botanic Garden warned).
A time-lapse video of the blossom opening was at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hMQmGGVvWj4#at=15 .
Condeluci said the Titan Arum looks for pollinators in the evening, emitting heat and a smell of rotting flesh as the sun starts to fade. The smell, which dissipates in the daytime, generally lasts 24 to 48 hours.
"The heat helps generate the scent upward ... (so) that something up to maybe a mile away will smell it and come running," she said by telephone.
"For us, that's fabulous, that people are excited about a plant," she said. "We think it's spectacular to look at, and a slightly terrible smell. Even if folks can't smell it, it's really dramatic."
(Reporting by Deborah Zabarenko; Editing by Marilyn Thompson and Eric Beech)