A Rare, 17-Year-Old 'Corpse Flower' Is Blooming in Vancouver

The 4-foot-tall plant is an endangered plant from Indonesia—and it's open to the public.

By Shannon Henderson July 17, 2019

WSU Vancouver science professor Steve Sylvester showing off the so-called "corpse flower" before it began blooming

Titan VanCoug—a rare, foul-smelling, 4-foot-tall flower—is blooming for the first time ever at the Vancouver campus of Washington State University. The towering plant began its ascent on June 1 and has sprouted inches per day in preparation for the colossal bloom, the scent of which has been described as rancid meat, dead animals, and dirty socks. The corpse flower started to bloom late Monday, July 15, and the sight and smell are not expected to continue much longer.

Crowds have descended upon the small WSU campus for a look and a whiff of the exotic bloom, which is protected by metal fencing. A mirror is mounted above the colorful show so onlookers can see into the body of the flowering plant. The sight is a half-hour trip from central Portland, but curious folk can catch a glimpse through a live cam here: 

Steve Sylvester, the WSU science professor who began the plant from seeds nearly 18 years ago, says the plant is supposed to stop growing approximately four days prior to the full bloom, but measurements showed 1.5 inches of growth Monday morning. The spathe, or petal-like outer shell, began to show its vibrant purple inner layers by Monday afternoon before a surprise show late Monday evening. The spadix, a phallic central growth much like the center of a calla lilly, will heat itself to 90 to 100 degrees Fahrenheit, releasing the sulfur-ridden odor that is then spread by wind.

Native to Sumatra, Indonesia, the Amorphophallus titanum (a.k.a. titan arum) is an endangered species of giant flowering plants that can live for up to 40 years. Sylvester gathered his seeds from the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 2001, and cultivated the plant in his office and lab before its size forced the 4-foot-wide planter pot into a university stairwell. 

The plant gathers its energy for blooms from a series of tuber growths that shoot up one of the world's largest leaves, create sugars, and store them in the "corm"–a swollen part of the stem—underground. Once the individual corm gathers enough energy, it sends up a symmetrical "pregnant looking" flowerbud. This particular titan arum is actually made up of four cloned corms, which will all eventually reach their own bloom. Sylvester says another one will reach carrying capacity for a bloom very soon—perhaps in the next few months.

The spectacular, towering showpiece, though often called a "flower," is not actually the flower itself, but rather an inflorescence, or "flower-holder," in which hundreds of male and female flowers wait for pollinators (usually corpse flies, dung beetles, and other carnivorous bugs). The female flowers will activate first, so Sylvester plans to use imported pollen from the New York Botanical Garden and the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh to increase the genetic diversity of the resulting seeds. Then, the male flowers will produce pollen to be collected and sold to other flowering titan arums across the globe. 

If you want to see the full blooming process, check out this time-lapse video of a corpse flower in Chicago. Or, head up to WSU campus (open 8 a.m.–9 p.m. on weekdays) yourself before it's too late. Sylvester estimates up to 20,000 people will see the flower this week. 

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