A rare event has taken stage at the Volunteer Park Conservatory: a corpse flower is in the early stages of blooming. One of the largest flower clusters (or inflorescences) in the world, growing up to an average of six to eight feet in height, it’s named after the distinct smell it omits to attract pollenators — you guessed it, rotting flesh.
Cultivated by botanic gardens and collectors around the world, the endangered corpse flower (Amorphophallus titanium) is native to western Sumatra, Indonesia, where it grows in openings in rain forests on limestone hills. Donated to the Conservatory in 2006 by the University of Washington Botany Greenhouse, it often takes seven to ten years to bloom, and this is the first time the plant has bloomed since it found its home at the Conservatory.
The plant is not new to Seattle — UW Botany Greenhouse Manager Doug Ewing has been cultivating the corpse flower for years.
“When I started working here in the greenhouse at UW in 1983, I looked for a way to get this plant, because it’s kind of an outlier example of plant diversity; it’s this sort of extreme example,” Ewing said.
“When we talk about animals, we sometimes talk about ‘charismatic megafauna’: elephants, pandas, whales, etc., and people will spend a lot of interest, time, energy and money on preserving these animals. I would say that [the corpse flower] is a ‘charismatic megaflora.’”
Known for its large size and distinct smell, which is meant to attract beetles and flesh flies that pollinate it, the plant was once an uncommon sight to see in the United States.
“This plant is now no longer rare in cultivation, and blooms are not rare events now,” Ewing said. “But they were very rare in the 1990s, and the reason was that no one had the plant. Several times in the early 1900s people went to Sumatra and dug up tubers of this plant and brought them to botanic gardens and zoos and got them to bloom, but then they weren’t successful at keeping them growing.”
Ewing acquired his first batch of seeds in 1993 from the Palmengarten Botanical Garden in Frankfurt, Germany, and since has been actively cultivating and donating the plant to various institutions, witnessing 13 blooms total.
“At the University of Washington we flowered our first bloom in 1999, and that was the first time a corpse flower had bloomed west of the Mississippi,” Ewing said. “Now the situation is that many botanic gardens, university collections etc, have this species, and they are flowering every year at 20 or more places, and that number will increase as they become more widely cultivated.”
After loaning three plants to the Conservatory, which produced three blooms, Ewing decided to donate one of his young corpse flower plants in 2006, knowing that it would be in good hands. The Conservatory has grown and cared for the plant since, and has produced its own bloom.
“I donated it to the Conservatory because I was able to,” Ewing said. “It is such a beautiful place for it to be on display; they do such a great job at displaying and showing it.”
In a matter of a few days to a week and a half, the Conservatory’s corpse flower will be in full bloom for all to see. Executive Director of the Friends of the Conservatory Anthonio Pettit feels that the blooming of the plant will be extremely good for the vitality of the Conservatory, as it will be closed for the months of October and November for renovations.
“It couldn’t have been more perfect for us, as we are going to be closed for the next two months,” Pettit said. “It’s so random when these things bloom, and we are thrilled that it happened in the last month that we are open, so that folks can come down for one last viewing before we close.”
According to Pettit, the plant is ready to bloom and has grown about five inches since it was put on display last Thursday. He says it will probably bloom within the next two weeks, if not earlier.
“To have one in bloom is pretty incredible, people ask about it constantly, and seeing a plant of this size is pretty staggering,” Pettit said. “We are hoping people can come in and get a whiff and see the natural world in bloom.”
According to Ewing, a common misconception is that the plant is constantly omitting its smell — it actually only smells like “rotting flesh” the night that it blooms. The spathe generally begins to open between mid-afternoon and late evening that day and remains open all night, when female flowers are receptive to pollination. Most spathes begin to wilt within twelve hours, and some have been known to remain open for 24–48 hours.
“One thing we’ve noticed with them is that people come and they expect something that’s going to reek of dead meat, and they notice that they don’t smell anything,” Ewing said. “For about four hours it becomes completely wide open from a diameter of 10 inches to four feet, and it starts cranking this aroma, and all that first night it just reeks to high heaven. In the morning there’s a little fragrance left, and it’s gone by noon. That’s usually when crowd comes, and then they don’t smell anything and are disappointed.”
Along with live updates on the plant’s status online, the Conservatory is hosting a plant sale, a corpse flower giveaway sweepstakes, and a plant-naming contest open to the community, which is accepting submissions through Sunday, September 7, and will announce the official name on September 8. Pettit believes it’s a great way to invite community engagement with this rare phenomenon.
“It’s a fun thing to do, and it gives us a little chance for the public to take some ownership over it,” Pettit said. “We’ve had ‘Waldo,’ and then ‘Husky,’ and this third one will be announced on the 8th.”
Despite the fact that catching a whiff of this plant in all its glory is within a small time frame, Ewing and Pettit attest to the plant being a must-see regardless. Located on 1400 East Galer St., you can catch it at the Conservatory all month, Tuesday through Sunday.
“I don’t have one in imminent bloom, so people should definitely go to Volunteer Park to see it, because it may be another year or two before there’s a chance in the Seattle area to see one; it could even be several years,” Ewing said. “I’ve seen 13 blooms, and it still knocks me out. It’s huge and incredible — just amazing.”
More about the corpse flower, now named Edgar Allan Pew, here: http://www.capitolhilltimes.com/2014/09/winning-name-conservatorys-corpse-flower-edgar-allan-pew/