Fellows in the News


Maile Neel

On a recent Friday evening, I hovered among a small group of guests in a tiny storefront gallery in Bushwick. Each of us was there in anticipation of a rare chance to smell a phantom flower. When the pendant on a necklace I’d been given at the door began to glow, an attendant dressed in white led me behind a folding screen to a corner where the artist Miriam Simun waited. In silence, she fitted me with a plastic device that hooked over my ears and rested on my nose like a pair of glasses. A scent pod with a changeable wick was attached to the device by a wire, which curved down like a mutant insect antenna so that the pod hovered more or less directly beneath my nostrils.

The flower whose scent I was now equipped to smell was the Agalinis acuta, or sandplain gerardia: a very small, very pink flower that is the only federally protected endangered plant species in New York State. Simun—who last year captured and shared the scents of deep-fried Atlantic cod, chocolate milk, and a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich in order to simulate the experience of consuming foods that are threatened by the extinction of their ingredients—came across the acuta when she was asked to create a New York-specific olfactory experience for the “NYC Makers” exhibition, at the Museum of Arts and Design.


There was a hint, however, that the flower had a scent to equal the beauty of its appearance, even if it was too faint for humans to appreciate in the wild. Maile Neel, one of the botanists whose genetic analyses revealed that acuta was a taxonomic error, told Simun that she had never seen so many bumblebees gather around a flower as did around this one. Simun suspected that this might be poetic license inspired by the researcher’s fondness for her subject, but, at six in the morning in Montauk, she witnessed the bumblebee flashmob for herself. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” she told me. “There are just hundreds of bumblebees, and they look drunk. It’s only for an hour, and then they all fly away.”

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