When a giant flower only blooms about every two decades – and promises to fill a hall with the smell of road kill rather than jasmine – I just had to go. I’m a garden nut when I’m not traveling – and sometimes even when we are circling the globe we love to ferret out great gardens.
And this Corpse Flower – so nicknamed because it smells like … yeah, really — was blooming about an hour or so away from our home base. Since adventurous travels don’t necessarily mean 12-hour flights, I set out down the road to find the stinky creature a.k.a Titan Arum or Corpse Lily, but botanically named Amorphophallus titanium.
It had been in Sacramento State’s greenhouse for more than 20 years, diligently cared for by students and professors as they watched its single humongous leaf come and go about every year or two. The Corpse Lily is said to have the largest flowering structure – botanically called the “inflorescence” – of any plant in the world. It can grow up to 10 feet tall and 3 feet wide and can weigh up to 25 pounds.
A generation between Corpse Flower’s blooms
A generation waited. And now today’s generation has experienced what for most is a once-in-a-lifetime event – a stinking good bloom that comes and goes inside of about 48 hours. Blink and you’ll miss it. And we were not about to miss this event in the Biology Department at Sacramento State’s “Living Gallery.”
According to biology professor Ron Coleman, thousands of people had poured through on March 24-25 alone, as the plant began to bloom. Dozens had traveled from around the state to experience it. More than 24,000 had tuned into the live stream.
Yes, this odoriferous Corpse Flower that’s native to Western Sumatra was pretty popular since its bloom is a rarity anywhere in the world. Popular enough to have a constant stream of selfies and photos being snapped in front of a tall green tube with a purple flower around the bottom that looked a bit like a huge piece of radicchio. Certainly traveling to Sacramento was a lot easier than to Sumatra.
Nose open! Mmmmmm! Odoriferous!
Coleman took his monitoring and overseeing job seriously when we were there. He manned a door to the case that housed the flower, opening and closing it for daring would-be sniffers: “Wanna smell? OK, nose open! Deep breath! MMMMM! If you were a vulture that would be the dinner bell!”
In the name of good journalism, we took our turn popping our nose into the case. Let’s see, you could say it smelled like four-day-old decomposing road kill. Or maybe like a rat that died in your attic and you didn’t find it for a few days. Or like the garbage bin behind that buffet restaurant in town that tosses out buckets of food scraps on a hot summer day and leaves them there to rot for a few days. Or maybe like the full diaper of a baby who’s had intestinal issues. Or all of the above.
OK, so why the stench? To attract beetles and flies that will pollinate it before it heads back into another two decades of slumber.
On the second day of the alleged two-day bloom, Coleman said he wasn’t sure if the bloom might actually continue beyond March 25 since the flower hadn’t totally opened up. Or if it might just call that enough and go away again.
Sacramento State “Living Gallery”
The Corpse Flower exhibit is just one of what will be continuing public-access exhibits in the “Living Gallery” of Sacramento State’s Biology Department. Located in Sequoia Hall, Room 105, exhibits are expected to rotate every three months.
“We believe in our mission that we’re here for the public,” said Coleman. “We want people to realize this is here.”
Once the corpse flower is done, the gallery will bring in a Dermestid beetle exhibit. Dermestid beetles — also known as skin, carpet or larder beetles – eat dead flesh. Which they will do in the Living Gallery, Coleman said. ICK! All future exhibits will also be live-streamed so check the Sacramento State’s Biology Department’s home page for more information.
Also on the schedule is an ant farm installation. Which seems mundane compared to flesh-eating beetles and flowers that smell like dead and rotting stuff.