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Rare MSU flower blooms for first time in 15 years

June 15, 2010

Holt resident Cindy Cameron leans in to smell MSU’s amorphophallus titanum, or corpse flower, Tuesday at the Michigan 4-H Children’s Garden. It is nicknamed the corpse flower because when it blooms it smells like rotting flesh.

Photo by Sam Mikalonis | The State News

After 15 years of waiting, the amorphophallus titanum, or corpse flower, finally bloomed in the Michigan 4-H Children’s Garden last Friday, and filled the room with a smell so disgusting it caused headaches, said Norm Lownds, curator for the Michigan 4-H Children’s Garden and associate professor in the MSU Department of Horticulture.

“It’s so big and it smells so nasty, like a dead animal on the side of the road that’s been there for about seven to eight days, but it’s a way cool thing,” Lownds said. “It’s really unique because it flowers so infrequently.”

The corpse flower is known as the largest flower in the world, but is actually the largest inflorescence, which is a cluster of flowers. Found only on the edges of Sumatran rainforests, the corpse flower can grow to more than six feet tall and three or four feet in diameter.

The flower uses the fly-pollination method, attracting flies and carrion beetles with its stench, plant biology graduate student Michael Grillo said.

“This plant evolved to closely mimic the smell of a rotting mammal,” Grillo said. “Its biochemical and genetic pathways are highly advanced. We’re used to pollination by humming birds, butterflies and bees — bright and colorful things. But this plant looks like it’s rotting, it smells like it’s rotting.”

About 1,000 spectators hurried to visit the garden Tuesday to view the plant on its last day of bloom, which only lasts three to four days before it dies and lies dormant for up to 30 years, Lownds said. Some people, such as plant research lab technician Sara Hawes, visited the plant twice.

“I had no idea what to expect,” Hawes said. “I’d never heard of this plant. It’s cool to that the university would invest in something like this.”

The flower smelled the strongest on Friday and Saturday, filling the 4-H Children’s Butterfly House with its odor, Lownds said.

“When it first started to open, you had to be really close to the center of the flower to smell anything,” he said. “The next day, the whole room was full of the smell.”

Some, such as fisheries and wildlife junior Nicholas Wells, said he thought the smell wasn’t too unbearable.

“I water (the 4-H Children’s Garden), so I got to water it before and after,” Wells said. “I thought it would smell more pungent, but it wasn’t.”

The flower has been a part of the teaching collection for decades and has been cared for by John Mugg, the Botany Greenhouse manager for more than 25 years. Mugg thought the flower was going to blossom a few weeks ago, but left to teach an environmental science study abroad program in Hawaii.

“John Mugg has been taking care of this plant for 15 years and he missed it bloom,” Grillo said. “But I don’t feel sorry for him, he’s in Hawaii.”

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