Washington State University Vancouver’s campus isn’t typically as busy — or as smelly — as it was on Wednesday, as visitors streamed onto school grounds to see a rare corpse flower in full bloom.
The flower — known locally as Titan VanCoug and botanically as amorphophallus titanum — was on display for visitors on Wednesday only, as it’s expected to bloom for only 24 to 48 hours. School officials said Titan VanCoug began opening its leaves on Tuesday afternoon, prompting them to rush the plant to its display area outside the science and engineering building’s greenhouse.
Titan VanCoug first bloomed in July 2019 after 17 years of anticipation — an event that drew an estimated 20,000 visitors to the campus over two days.
While it blooms, the ultra-rare plant emits a strong, foul odor reminiscent of garbage rotting on a New York City sidewalk on a hot summer day. Though a light breeze helped keep the most pungent aromas at bay, standing close to the plant in certain spots provided visitors with a thorough understanding of where the nickname “corpse flower” came from.
“It’s really cool, but I didn’t think plants could be that stinky,” said Olive DeGiovanni, 11, a neighborhood resident who came with her family to see the flower Wednesday morning. “I thought flowers only smelled good. This smells like a port-a-potty.”
“It’s a bit different waking up to this smell instead of coffee,” added Olive’s mother, Olga.
Bigger, better, smellier
To visitors who came to see the plant’s opening act three years ago, this year’s bloom may be even more impressive. At 69 inches tall, this one dwarfs the 41-inch plant displayed in 2019. The stench, too, is far more noticeable, visitors said.
“This is one of those things you don’t expect you’re ever going to experience,” WSUV Chancellor Mel Netzhammer said. “It’s been just so interesting. I understand the rarity of the moment, but I don’t know what it is about human nature that makes us so captivated by such a strange sight like this.”
The corpse flower’s life began in 2002 as nothing but a small seed in a pot on Steve Sylvester’s desk. He’d received it from a research team at the University of Minnesota after seeking a side project to bring curious minds to campus.
Now a professor emeritus as the university, Sylvester spent the last two decades tending to the plant as it went through its routine of growing a single, tall leaf and dying back. Typically, corpse flowers bloom for the first time about seven to 10 years after being planted. That timeline was right on track until it was accidentally overwatered in 2008 — a minor mistake that caused the plant’s corm to explode and split into four different plants.
Though the event delayed Titan VanCoug’s first bloom another decade, it has now created an opportunity for one of the four corms to bloom as frequently as once every year.
“I could get a bloom every year. It could be as early as next year,” said Sylvester, who spent Wednesday speaking with visitors and media members about the plant’s origins and significance. “In reality, I can’t predict anything about this plant; it does what it wants to do.”
On July 10, Sylvester and corpse flower co-caretaker Dawn Freeman noticed that one of the corms had begun to sprout. They measured it at 2½ inches tall.
Just over a month later, it’s nearly as tall as Sylvester himself.
“It’s nothing but a tremendous transport of nutrients,” Sylvester said, gesturing to the towering plant that’s among the world’s tallest and rarest.
It’s estimated that fewer than 1,000 of the plants are alive throughout the world, with perhaps as many in captivity as there are in the plant’s native homeland of Sumatra.
Passing the torch
On Wednesday morning before crowds showed up, Freeman pollinated the plant with pollen that she and Sylvester had received from partnering universities and conservatories in California and Illinois.
The goal, they said, is to keep pollinating the plants during blooms and harvest the resulting seeds to distribute to other places. Conducting genetic research on the plants will help determine the best ways to approach re-planting them in the wild someday.
Following Sylvester’s retirement in 2020, Freeman — a lab manager at WSUV — was handed the reins as chief caretaker of Titan VanCoug for the foreseeable future.
“When Steve left, there were four big leaves. I just kept watering and watching it until they fell down a few months ago and laid dormant for three months or so,” she said. “I got teased for a while that I had killed it off.”
The next time Titan VanCoug blooms, Sylvester may return as a guest, but it’ll be up to Freeman to lead the presentations.
“I’m really humbled and honored. It’s not hard to take care of, but there’s a lot hanging on it,” she said. “The next bloom, I’ll be on my own. I’m a little nervous.”