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Field Notes

Covering the natural wonders of the Pacific Northwest

June 8, 2011 at 6:00 AM

Hold your nose — corpse flower about to bloom at UW

Drum roll, please: Amorphophallus titanum, also known as corpse flower because of its stinky flower, is about to bloom at the University of Washington botany greenhouse.

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Erin Forbush, greenhouse technician, stands next to corpse flower about to bloom at the UW botany greenhouse. The photo was taken at about 9 a.m. Tuesday, and the flower is progressing rapidly — it may bloom by Wednesday afternoon!

Courtesy, Kristy Brady, University of Washington

Like something out of a dinosaur movie, the plants can reach 10 feet in height, and emit both heat and stink when they bloom, to attract carrion beetles an flies for pollination.

The flower only emits its trademark fragrance — likened to rotting meat or gym bags — for a few hours after it first opens. But its flower will be worth a visit for days.

“Words don’t do it justice,” said Doug Ewing, manager of the UW greenhouse.

Indeed. Here’s a photo of a past bloom:

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Corpse flower in full bloom at the UW botany greenhouse. Photographed about 9 years ago.

Courtesy, Kristy Brady, University of Washington.

Check the botany department’s Facebook page to track the plant’s progress, and see more pictures of past blooms.

Visitors to the greenhouse are welcome, and even after hours, the flower can be seen through the greenhouse windows.

Public hours at the greenhouse are Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. The botany greenhouse is next to Kincaid Hall on Stevens Way, the main road through campus. For a map, click here. There is no public parking at the greenhouse, but I’ve always found it easy to park on the street.

The greenhouse staff have cultivated the flower, which first bloomed in 1999 — the first blooming corpse flower west of the Mississippi. The last bloom was in 2008, and coaxing it to bloom is a bit of an art. Ewing, who leads the team at the greenhouse, said he and the team have managed to have 14 previous plants bloom, possibly more than any other public university or botanic garden in the United States.

He got this one to break dormancy after two and a half years, Ewing thinks, by using a heating pad, placed under the plant’s pot. The idea was to mimic the sultry heat of its native Sumatra, to trick it into blooming. Previous strategies, including putting it in a large plastic bag with a couple of bananas and apples, didn’t work. The ethylene gas emitted by the fruit can stimulate some plants, such as bromeliads, to bloom. But not devil’s tongue, as the plant is commonly known.

Ewing says the staff grow devil’s tongue just to give students and the public a sense of the wide variety of plants, and just what plants can be capable of. “This one is kind of off the chart,” he said of corpse flower. “It’s a lot of fun, every time they bloom.”

The plant in bloom will draw thousands of visitors for about a week, he predicted. And why not? When it first comes into bloom it emits both heat and stink, to attract pollinators, and the maroon skirt of material below the spadix grows so fast you can see it move.

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