The Infamous Corpse Flower Blooms At NC State

Aug 2, 2019

A rare flower has bloomed on North Carolina State University's campus for the second time in three years.

It's called titan arum, but known as the corpse flower for its strong smell of what some describe as rotting flesh and others describe as dead fish. 

Katherina Dubiansky and her sister Sonia came to see the bloom. 

"Actually, my sister, here, told me that it was happening," Dubiansky said. "And she had been watching the livestream, watching for the moment it was opening. We've actually been here for the past, like, three hours!" 

Dubiansky considers herself a plant enthusiast. She leans in to get a sniff. 

"It kinda smells like rotting mushrooms. Like, if you leave mushrooms in the fridge slightly too long and they get weird and mushy," she said. 

The smell doesn't seem to bother her that much. The plant has a long, trunk-like stem called the spadex which seems to shoot out of the ground. Around it is one big flower petal, almost like a skirt, called the spathe. Before it blooms, the spathe looks bright green on the outside until it unfolds to reveal a deep burgundy color inside.  

via GIPHY

Dubiansky thinks it looks like something out of a Jurassic Park movie. "It's really strange looking, but also beautiful in a weird way." 

Brandon Huber, a PhD student at NC State, got the plant 12 years ago when he visited the Huntington Botanical Gardens in California. Back then, the plant was the size of a softball. Today, it's taller than he is, and, of course, it smells.  

"It's weird because as much as we're repulsed by the smell of it, people are drawn to it knowing this is a flower," Huber said. "Instead of it smelling like some roses, we're smelling something that is giving off a totally different odor." 

As much as we're repulsed by the smell of it, people are drawn to it knowing this is a flower. -Brandon Huber

He says there's a reason this flower smells differently than others. Instead of attracting bees, this flower wants to attract other bugs. "It's drawing in flies and beetles, and things that will go to roadkill, or a trashcan on a hot day," Huber said. 

That smell only lasts for 24 hours and the bloom itself lasts for three days. In that time, NC State's Marye Anne Fox Science Laboratory is expected to be packed with visitors trying to get a glimpse and a sniff of the notorious flower. 

Huber is glad to see people interested in the plant because it exposes people to the wonders of plants and of horticulture. 

"There's a lot of cool things we do in horticulture and you try to show people and it's just kinda whatever. But here's a plant that draws people in by the thousands," he said. 

Once the plant fully blooms, the base of the spadex starts to heat up, making that stench stronger and attracting more bugs. In the wild, an insect would be attracted to the smell, sit inside the flower to get some nectar, and carry a bit of pollen with it as it flies out. For a pollination to be successful, the insect would have to go to another corpse plant immediately after to transfer that pollen. 

"In the wild, we'd have to have two of these [plants] blooming at the same time," Huber explained. "So, that seems like a really rare occurence, which doesn't really help the plant's status in the wild. It is listed as endangered." 

Huber calls his corpse plant "Lupin", which comes from the Greek word for "wolf". He says the name is an homage to nickname for NC State's athletic teams, the NC State Wolfpack. 

He has decided not to pollinate Lupin. He has found that after the flower is pollinated, it compeltes the lifecycle and the plant dies. If the plant doesn't get pollinated, it can live indefinitely. On Sunday, the corpse flower's spadex is expected to fall over and shrivel up. Then, the process will start all over. The plant will be dormant for sometime, until it grows new leaves and eventually blooms yet again. 

Lupin bloomed for the first time in 2016 and now again in 2019. So, Huber believes in another two or three years, we'll be smelling that stench with yet another bloom.