Washington State University Vancouver’s resident corpse flower, Titan VanCoug, bloomed yet again Friday, releasing its famed stench throughout the school’s Science and Engineering Building for excited visitors.
Many of the flower’s visitors Friday said they’d seen it in years past — either last year or in 2019 — but were shocked to see it in a new, even-rarer form. An over-watering accident years ago caused the plant to surprisingly clone itself into four plants; now the pot features each of the four plants in different stages of life.
“In just one instance before that I’ve seen online, I’ve seen just a leaf and a bloom in one pot. But I’ve never seen a leaf, bloom, fruiting body and a sprout all together,” said Steve Sylvester, the now-retired “father” of Titan VanCoug who planted it from a seed 21 years ago. “This is a first.”
Due to the height and weight of the pungent plant, which includes a 10-foot-tall leaf reminiscent of a tree, professors and caretakers had to keep it indoors this year. While it allows the plant the space it needs, visitors are invited inside the Science Engineering Building in small groups at a time to view the bloom and ask questions of Sylvester and its current caretaker, Dawn Freeman.
At 52.5 inches tall, Friday’s bloom is nearly two feet shorter than last year’s, which Freeman posits could be due to lower heat or its residence indoors. When the plant bloomed last year, the 90-plus-degree heat and bright sunlight perhaps amplified the flower’s most famed quality.
“The thing is, there’s not all that much to compare it to — we’ve never had it in the building,” said Freeman while using a small paintbrush to dust the interior of the bloom’s tuber with pollen. “It didn’t get the growth spurt we expect. Maybe it’s because it’s a June bloom and last year’s was in August.”
Visitors and fans react
Though enormous, Titan VanCoug is delicate and reclusive. Freeman thought even by early Friday morning the stench was beginning to wane, perhaps because of the air conditioning and cool breeze wafting in from outside. Even still, the so-called “waning smell” was enough to cause most guests to recoil and regain their balance upon coming through the doorway to see it.
“How do you even describe it? It’s such an oddity,” said Michelle Nyhan, who came to visit the plant all the way from her home in Camas for third day in a row Friday. Nyhan said she first saw the bloom in 2019 and has struggled to shake the feeling elicited by the sight.
“I’m a roadside Americana person, I’m always looking for obscure things. And this is definitely obscure,” Nyhan said. “It reminds me of something from ‘Little Shop of Horrors.’ My husband joked that they keep the rope in front of it so it doesn’t jump out and eat you.”
Nyhan wasn’t the only visitor seeing Titan VanCoug for a second (or third) time, however; at one point Sylvester asked the crowd how many were first-timers. Just a small handful gleefully raised their hands.
In its short time on campus, unbeknownst to the plant, Titan has apparently developed a fan base.
“We have really got a lot of people coming back,” Sylvester said.
Attracting visitors was actually the reason Sylvester planted the seed, which he received from partners at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2002.
“Well, of course I always wanted to smell one,” Sylvester said. “But I wanted to bring people here to campus. So many people used to ask me ‘There’s a college in Vancouver?’ I knew these plants usually drew about 20,000 people for a bloom, so it seemed like a good idea.”
Yes, it’s going to happen again
As crowded as Titan VanCoug’s pot is, there’s still one more plant buried in there waiting to bloom. While the majority of corpse flower sprouts turn into leaves — the tall, treelike structure to side of the bloom — Freeman, Sylvester and the team think that because of the amount of time the sprout-to-be has spent laying dormant underground, it’s likely that it’ll become yet another bloom.
Not in a year, not in six months. In August.
That’s right: it’s possible Titan VanCoug could produce another bloom in just a few weeks. Because of how much energy the plant is capable of storing, especially now that it’s been cloned into four, it wouldn’t take long for another bloom to shoot up. After all, the bloom on display Friday took all of a few weeks to go from nothing to over four feet in height. Even the 10-foot leaf took less than a year to grow to that size.
“It’s too early to tell, but we should know in about two weeks. Since it’s rested for a whole year, we all think it’s going to be a bloom,” Sylvester said.
“The plant will do what it wants to do,” Freeman added.
After the next bloom or leaf when the plant returns to dormancy, Freeman said it could be time to dig it up. Because of how rapidly each of the plants has been shifting in and out of cycles, they haven’t had too much time to study the plant and how it managed to fuse after it burst years ago. Not only that, but she said it could use a repotting with more dirt.
“We need to know what’s going on in there,” Freeman said. “A lot of it is going to be me, very scared, digging around in the dirt.”
The school’s public safety department estimated around 3,000 to 4,000 visitors stopped by to see Titan VanCoug on Friday — a similar turnout as last year’s bloom. Visitation on campus remained open until 7 p.m. Friday. Curious long-distance viewers can also check out the bloom on Youtube.