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Corpse plant, reeking of rotting flesh, sparks hunt for pollen

March 19, 2012|By Tina Susman
  • This screen grab from a live webcam at a Cornell University greenhouse shows a rare titan arum, or corpse plant, in bloom. If you go to see it, hold your nose.
This screen grab from a live webcam at a Cornell University greenhouse shows… (Cornell University )

Reporting from New York —

It took a few years, but the rare titan arum -- a.k.a. corpse plant -- housed at Cornell University opened into full bloom overnight, sending its famously vile odor wafting through a greenhouse and marking one of the few times that people outside Sumatra have witnessed such an event.

Thanks to modern technology, people who could not see the plant in person in the Cornell greenhouse, in Ithaca, N.Y., could view the plant's opening on a live webcam. Early Monday, a steady stream of camera-toting visitors slowly circled the giant plant, which resembles an upside-down maroon-colored flared skirt, with a long, green column -- known as the spadix -- protruding from the center toward the sky.

Cornell acquired the plant about 10 years ago, and this marks the first time it has bloomed. The experts who keep watch on the plant realized last week that it was preparing to bloom, when the unopened inflorescence began a growth spurt. On March 4, it measured 38 inches; by Monday, it was a towering 66.5 inches high. 

The corpse plant -- so-called because of the rancid-smelling odor it emits when in full bloom -- needs pollen from other corpse plants to thrive. "That's why they are so rare," said Karl Niklas, the Liberty Hyde Bailey professor of plant biology at Cornell.  "If you think about these plants flowering, maybe every seven to 10 years, and you need another plant nearby to transport pollen, it explains why there are so few seeds."

Niklas said in a phone interview that Cornell was negotiating with other institutions that have pollen in deep freeze to get some of it for the plant in Ithaca. "If we don't get pollen, within three to four days, all of what you see above ground will wither and die back. It's a narrow window."

Early Monday, after pollen was obtained, the plant was pollinated.

Cornell, meanwhile, has decided that it's time to name the plant. On Facebook, it's invited fans to choose from three possible names: Big Red; Uncle Ezra (one of Cornell's founders); and Wee Stinky.

The plant's smell is legendary, according to Niklas, citing one tale from Queen Victoria's time in England, when a titan arum reportedly was brought to the Royal Botanic Garden at Kew. When it bloomed, the queen was invited to witness the event. She wisely sent a member of her court to scope things out first.

"The member of the court wrote back and said 'Ma'am, don't come, it stinks,'" said Niklas. "That's apparently a true story."

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tina.susman@latimes.com

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