In the next year — and possibly even in the next few months — an unpleasant smell will waft from Washington State University Vancouver, drawing tens of thousands of visitors.
It’s a rancid, rotting meat smell that’s like catnip for botanists, who have been long fascinated by its originator, the Titan Arum plant — commonly known as the corpse flower. The strange plants, native to Sumatra, generally bloom only every 7-11 years, drawing carrion-loving flies to transport their pollen. And the one at WSUV, lovingly named the Titan VanCoug, is long overdue for a bloom.
“It should have bloomed in 2015,” said Steven R. Sylvester, a WSUV professor of molecular bioscience. “We’re overdue. We’re ready for it.”
Sylvester brought the Titan VanCoug corpse flower to the university in 2001 in an effort to foster school science spirit. But the plants are picky about watering, and in the case of his plant, a do-gooder in 2008 watered it at the wrong time — which split the corm (which is sort of like the plant bulb or root ball) into four pieces.
That slowed down growth, and there are now three leaves (which look like tree stalks) and one sprout — each growing out of each piece of corm. The fourth sprout only just appeared on August 21, the day of the solar eclipse, which has Sylvester hoping a bloom will soon be on the way.
“The sprout is just growing like crazy,” Sylvester said. “Normally they bloom every 11 years, but when the corm exploded, it reset the clock. So we’re not really sure exactly when it will bloom.”
He now thinks the sprout is another leaf, but he said the plant is still overdue to bloom.
Each part of the corm is acting like a genetically separate entity, which means theoretically the plant could have four blooms, one from each piece. Corm splits are somewhat rare, though — and nobody really knows what the four-way split will do, he said.
“All I know is I really want a bloom,” he said.
The plant only blooms for 24-48 hours before finishing the cycle, so catching it at the right moment is critical. Even with the tight time frame, though, Titan Arum blooms are such rare and fascinating things that Sylvester said he expects 20,000 visitors will come to the school to check it out.
“We have plans to put up a tent, take it outside, have an educational area,” Sylvester said. “We expect a lot of people.”
The plant, currently next to a tall stairway in the Science and Engineering Building, will have to be moved outside during the bloom because of the smell, he added.
Sylvester first learned of corpse flowers after reading a scientific article about it from Mohammad Fayyaz, a scientist and former director of the University of Wisconsin Madison Botany Greenhouse and Botanical Garden.
Fayyaz grew his first Titan Arum from seed collected by James Symon and Wilbert Hetterscheid, who traveled to Sumatra in 1993. The two researchers found a bloom about 20 miles north of Sipirok, West Sumatra Province, in cut-over rainforest, collected the Titan Arum seeds and then sent them to researchers across the country, including Fayyaz.
The Titan Arum borders on endangered in its native Sumatra because of deforestation, Sylvester said.
Fayyaz’s plant first bloomed on June 7, 2001 — and its DNA lives on in several of its children that were also grown from seed. Fayyaz collected his own seeds from the 2001 bloom, and one of them ended up at WSUV with Sylvester, later to be named the Titan VanCoug.
“I sent the seeds almost to all plant science institutions in the U.S. and Canada,” said Fayyaz, who recently retired from the school. “I also took several small seedlings to a friend from University of Mayaguez in Puerto Rico and we planted them outside (not in the greenhouse) and after five years they bloomed.”
That’s a lot less time than most indoor grown corpse flowers, which often take 10-11 years, Sylvester said.
For Fayyaz, one of the most fascinating things about the plant is the way it spreads its stink to draw pollinators.
“The beast is interesting because its spadix (the center of the flower where the seeds grow) heats up during pollination to almost 10 degrees higher than its environment in order to emit the bad smell (sulfur compounds) to attract flies for pollination,” Fayyaz said. “After pollination the spathe closes in order to protect the new seeds from adverse environmental conditions.”
In a bloom, the male part of the plant heats to 80 to 90 degrees, with the plant’s inner biochemistry generating the heat to push the smell out, Sylvester said.
“That a plant can generate 90 degrees — that’s really interesting,” Sylvester said. “We can do that as people. But for a plant to do that? I’d never heard of a plant doing that before.”
Of course, that combination also means there will be a lot of corpse flies buzzing around campus during the bloom.
“Yup. There will be,” Sylvester said. “And I’m eager to see them. I haven’t experienced a bloom yet myself.”
The plant’s leaves also mimic lichens as a way to keep animals from disturbing it, Fayyaz said.
“Lichens grow on hard wood plants in forests, and when animals such as deer running in the wood see the lichens on trees or shrubs, they avoid bumping into it in order to not get injured,” Fayyaz said.
He also thinks the bloom could draw more than 20,000 visitors to WSUV. Crowds packed the Wisconsin campus when his Titan Arum bloomed in 2001.
“We had over 30,000 visitors from a few months old to over 90 years old with their oxygen tanks,” Fayyaz said. “We placed a webcam and got over a million hits and caused the UW-Madison server to crash.”
Sylvester said the school is ready for the influx. Officials have been looking at ways to get crowds in and out to view the bloom, along with providing conveniences to the public like porta-potties, he said.
When Titan Arums bloom, scientists often gather pollen to bring to other plants across the country as a way to enhance their genetics.
“After you brush the pollen on the flowers, then the seeds form,” Sylvester said. “They’re red, about the size of your thumb.”
Sylvester hopes to gather the seeds from his Titan VanCoug bloom as well, so he can send them out to a new generation of eager growers. He plans to give them to scientific departments and nonprofit groups first, and then to others on request if he has enough.
“I believe the seeds will be in high demand,” Sylvester said.
After a bloom is over, the plant often dies. Sometimes, though, it grows back and blooms again. And sometimes growers also uproot the corm after a bloom, clean it and cut out the bad areas, and then replant it, he said.
Sylvester said he’s unlikely to replant or grow a new one after the bloom though, as he’s on the verge of retirement himself.
“Yeah I want to retire,” he said wistfully. “I think my wife would be unhappy with me if I brought one of these home.”
Fayyaz said he’s proud to hear that one of the children of his plant is about to bloom here in Vancouver.
“I’d like to congratulate them and please let them know to put a big jar for donations,” Fayyaz said. “We collected over $90,000 in almost a week. We also sold many T-shirts, posters, and nose pins.”