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Corpse flower blooms in time for the new semester

September 21, 2016

The resident corpse flower plant at the UW-River Falls greenhouse bloomed on Friday, Sept. 9, and did so when no one was around to see or smell it.

“It started opening around 2, 3 o’clock in the afternoon,” said Dan Waletzko, manager of the greenhouse. “And continued to open up until probably midnight or 1, and then started to close up. This year’s a little atypical. It took longer for it to bloom, and when it did it didn’t open fully like in years past.”

The titan arum—commonly known as the corpse flower—is a native of the tropical island of Sumatra in Southeast Asia. It was named for its peculiar smell, which resembles the scent of rotting flesh in order to draw in pollinators such as beetles and flies.

“I could actually smell it outside the greenhouse, walking past it,” said Molly Bartel, a fifth-year horticulture and agriculture education student at UWRF, and also a student worker at the greenhouse. “In the greenhouse, when I was walking up from the back, I could smell it probably about the second set of rooms…and that was before it was open.”

Waletzko acquired the corpse plant as a seed in 2001. It was given to him by UW-Madison as part of a plant swap between members of the Association for Education and Research Greenhouse Curators (AERGC). Members, he said, often trade plants that they consider important or unique, usually for the purpose of conservation or educational benefit.

“If you have interesting things in your collection that you think are a good teaching model for a particular class, you go ahead and bring them, share them,” said Waletzko.

Keeping the plant also serves to shelter the species. The corpse plant was listed as an endangered species in the 1997 publication of the IUCN (International Union Conservation of Nature) Red list of threatened plants, and keeping specimens preserved in university greenhouses serves to lend the species a degree of protection should anything happen to those growing in the wild.

Now that the current bloom is over, the flower of the UWRF titan arum will die back, leaving only a 55 pound lump of compressed stem material (called a ‘corm’) that lies buried beneath the soil. After about six months of dormancy, the corm will produce a single leaf that looks like a green, eight-foot tree, which will remain standing for a year before dying back down to a corm once again. It will do this multiple times before it sends up another flower which, in the wild, can take anywhere from two to 10 years and be difficult to predict.

The UWRF titan arum has been flowering on an oddly regular, three-year cycle (two years producing a leaf, one year producing a flower), which is likely due to the fact that it lives in a controlled environment with no threats from pests, diseases or erratic weather. This is not to say that it will definitely bloom again in three years, but the chances are good that it will and anyone looking to see the next bloom should keep that timeline in mind.

The current bloom is still in the process of decaying. The signature smell is no longer present, but those wishing to see what is left of this year’s flower can visit the greenhouse from 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday through Friday.