Wednesday, March 22, 2023
March 22, 2023

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Mold kept WSUV corpse flower from bearing fruit

And it's still too soon to know the fate of Titan VanCoug's clones

By , Columbian Breaking News Reporter
9 Photos
Associate professor Steven R. Sylvester examines new growth on a clone of Titan VanCoug, a corpse flower that bloomed earlier this year at Washington State University Vancouver.
Associate professor Steven R. Sylvester examines new growth on a clone of Titan VanCoug, a corpse flower that bloomed earlier this year at Washington State University Vancouver. (Nathan Howard/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

The fruiting body of Titan VanCoug — the rare corpse flower at Washington State University Vancouver that drew thousands of visitors to the campus this summer — should be green and healthy, producing seeds. Instead, it’s rotting away.

“The bottom line is, the fruiting body was attacked by mold spores that blew in and are active at the temperatures we experience here in the building,” said Steven R. Sylvester, the faculty member who planted the flower’s seed 18 years ago. “I do not anticipate getting any seeds this time around.”

Luckily, Titan VanCoug, Latin name Amorphophallus titanum, lives on through three additional clones. As of early November, one of the clones had sprouted a leaf that had grown about 9 feet tall. And about a week ago, another bud popped out of the dirt, but it’s unclear if it will produce another leaf or a flower bloom.

The clone that produced the tall leaf is currently located in the stairwell of the campus’s science and engineering building — the only place it fits and adequately receives light and energy for continued growth.

The new leaf’s base is thicker than any other produced by the original seed in the past, said Sylvester. He predicts the leaf could bloom into a corpse flower in a year’s time.

It’s a swift second coming, given that it took 17 years for Titan VanCoug to produce its first bloom.

In typical years, the corpse flower’s underground corm, a bulbous mass Sylvester describes as a “fuzzy potato,” sends off huge stalks of leaves, almost like tree trunks. The leaves collect energy from the sun, storing it in the corm in anticipation of blooming. The leaves typically fall and die, and the plant becomes dormant again. It usually takes seven to 10 years for a corpse flower to store the energy to bloom.

An overzealous gardener gave the plant too much water in 2008, causing the corm to clone and starting the process all over again. The over-watering caused the corm to burst into at least four pieces, Sylvester said. One of those offshoot corms resulted in this summer’s bloom.

Sylvester had swiped yellow pollen he received from the New York Botanical Garden onto the small flowers lining the corpse flower’s spadix, or spike, in July. He hoped it would help Titan VanCoug produce as many as 100 fruits bearing just as many seeds within four to six months.

Mold destroyed his dreams. Sylvester had planned to give the seeds to an expansive list of universities, public conservatories and private individuals. He wasn’t able to do so, but he’ll likely have a second chance.

A second corm produced the leaf that is growing daily, and the professor predicted another corm could put up a leaf or bloom.

How those potential stinky flowers will be displayed to the public is unclear. When Titan VanCoug unfurled in July, revealing its purple innards and an odor reminiscent of a landfill, a campus security officer used camera footage to estimate that more than 20,000 people came to gawk at the rare plant over about 2 1/2 days.

Fifty volunteers — faculty, staff, students and their families — helped wrangle the visitors to the flower’s pen, watching guests for signs of heat exposure, and offering water and snacks. Sylvester held court near the flower.

“It was a real coming together of the VanCoug community to pull this thing off. I was kind of a small player, but fine by me,” Sylvester said.

Brenda Alling, director of marketing and communications at WSU Vancouver, said she was persistently nervous leading up to the bloom. It was like planning a party for an unknown number of people, Alling said.

Summer break helped with the influx of visitors to campus, she said. There were parking spots and no students running to class.

The logistics of another corpse flower extravaganza will be determined by the chancellor. The campus can’t accommodate a similar public event while classes are in session. Despite the unknowns, Alling said she’s excited for another bloom.

“There are a lot of factors that matter tremendously, but I’m looking forward to it. Titan is always in the back of my mind somewhere,” she said.

Columbian Breaking News Reporter