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A flower that smells of death haunts WSU Vancouver

Fourteen years ago a seedling was planted on the Washington State University Vancouver campus, and now that same flower from may finally be showing signs of its first bloom. If a bloom occurs, its caretaker expects a crowd of thousands of onlookers.

Amorphophallus titanium, or corpse flower, nick-named for the cadaverous scent it gives off during its bloom, is one of the rarest flowers in the world.

Steve Sylvester, a biosciences professor at WSU Vancouver, has cared for the corpse flower since it was a seed and has christened it Titan VanCoug. While the corpse flower originated on the island of Sumatra in Western Indonesia, the seedling that became Titan came from a university in Wisconsin.

During the first months of cultivation, the plant appeared to die, and Sylvester “thought maybe I had overwatered it.”

However, the apparent die-off was just part of the corpse flower life cycle. The flower tends to initially sprout a large green stalk topped by several leaflets. According to Sylvester, this then died, and “a few days later a new leaf bud poked through the soil.”

In its infancy Titan was able to fit in a 12-inch pot, but after several years and four feet of leaf growth, it became apparent that the plant needed a bigger pot in which to grow.

Eventually, Titan grew to 8 feet and sprouted a second leaf. “It was getting too big for my lab,” Sylvester said.

First Sylvester moved it to the end of the hall on the top floor of the science building and engineering building, where it lived for another year. There it continued to grow, eventually forcing him to buy an even bigger pot for it.

“As another leaf died, somebody decided I forgot about it and began ‘helping’ me water it,” Sylvester said. The extra water caused the original leaf to explode, and as it grew back it became apparent that the plant now had four leaves, or quads.

According to Sylvester it is rare for a corpse flower to have twin leaves, let alone the quads Titan VanCoug now has. As far as he knows, Titan’s quads are a first for the corpse flower.

Whether the four leaves will all bloom at one time is still a mystery, but such an occurrence is unlikely. It is also unknown when the flower will actually bloom. However, the plant may give warning signals: a new sprout and a pregnant shape usually indicates blooming is about to occur.

Once the flower begins to bloom it will take roughly three days to fully expand and then collapse. During that time Sylvester will harvest pollen to send off to other universities studying the flower.

It will take about one year for the seeds to be ready for harvesting. Sylvester plans to distribute them to other universities for further study.

It can take 10 or more years for a corpse flower to collect the nutrients it needs to form a bloom. Titan has not yet bloomed, but when it does everyone in the vicinity will know about it. “It’s pollinated by the same fly that CSI uses to figure out how old the corpse is,” Sylvester said.

In order to draw the flies to it, Titan will give off “a really bad stink like a dead animal…[and] it even produces heat up to 90 degrees, almost as warm as a human, to spread the stink.”

Once it is obvious that a bloom is coming Titan will be transferred to an outdoor tent so the odor will not affect classes and Sylvester can care for it.

Sylvester is planning a community showcase to display the bloom in order to bring the public to the Vancouver campus. “On average 20-25,000 people” will show up to see a corpse flower in bloom, Sylvester said.

It is Sylvester’s hope that a showcase of the bloom can double as a means to bring community awareness of the research and educational opportunities offered by WSU Vancouver.

In Sumatra, corpse flowers are in danger of becoming extinct, but in the U.S. the flowers are thriving. This year alone has seen seven blooms, the most blooms of corpse flowers in one year since 1889, when the flower first was studied.

There have only been about 150 blooms recorded around the world since the late 1880s, so once Titan begins its bloom it will be a very rare event to witness.

Titan VanCoug sits at the bottom entrance of the science and engineering building, where it can prosper in relative warmth and receive sunlight through a wall of windows. Students are encouraged to check it out, but not touch or water the plant, whose noxious powers are unpredictable.

Watch the corpse flower at Indiana University bloom:

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