It’s the perfect plant for 2020: A rare flower that smells like rotting meat and only blooms for 24 to 48 hours whenever it feels like it.
Longwood Gardens’ corpse flower, expected to bloom in the next couple of days and stink up the joint, seems like the perfect addition to a year that — so far — has included a pandemic, toilet paper shortages, home lockdowns, murder hornets and protests.
The flower also gives people another reason to be grateful for the masks they’re being asked to wear to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Known as a titan arum (Amorphophallus titanium), the corpse plant is showcased in the botanical garden’s conservatory, open to the public again after being shut down because of the coronavirus.
Senior Horticulturist Joyce Rondinella has been measuring the plant every morning to see if it’s growth rate has slowed, a sign it’s about to bloom. On Thursday morning, it had grown another 4 1/2 inches to 72 inches so it hasn’t quite slowed down enough to bloom immediately, but will soon, she said.
“I’m not picking the exact time because they are finicky,” she said.
Affectionately known to the staff as Sprout, it will first bloom and raise the biggest stink at night and into early morning, she said.
To make sure nobody misses the opportunity to see the plant first-hand, Longwood is offering extended evening hours now. Guests must purchase tickets online in advance. You can also follow a live feed of the plant’s progress at longwoodgardens.org/sprout.
Rondinella has been caring for Sprout since its arrival in 2018 at Longwood, the internationally known gardens in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, created by Pierre S. du Pont.
“There’s not a lot of them in the botanical garden world, and we all want to get them to bloom,” she said. “So it’s kind of like a career highlight.”
Horticulturists really can’t choreograph a bloom.
“They’re tricky,” Rondinella said. “They kind of do what they want. We can’t manipulate them to do what we want and get them to bloom on our time.”
When the corpse plant, a native of Sumatran rain forests, does bloom, the process also generates heat. That allows the stench to travel farther, Rondinella said. The heat and smell attract pollinators, such as dung and carrion beetles, from across long distances.
But don’t worry about bugs crawling across your shoes.
Longwood doesn’t have any dung beetles or other insects that would work, so Rondinella will be doing the pollinating it herself.
She’ll brush on pollen from another garden’s plant.
Corpse plants belong to the arum family, which include Jacks in the pulpit, philodendrons and the peace lily. They are tubers, but function like bulbs such as daffodils or tulips.
“It’s like a bulb on steroids,” Rondinella said.
The corpse plant only blooms every three or four years if they are correctly cared for, she said.
The last time a titan arum bloomed at Longwood was April 14, 1961.
Longwood’s Sprout was started from seed in 2008 at UC Berkeley and sent to Chicago Botanic Garden, where it bloomed in April 2016.
Chicago sent it to Longwood, which put it on display in August 2018 so people could see the towering 9-foot leaf. That leaf gathers energy through photosynthesis and stores it in the tuber.
As its leaf went dormant in October 2019, Sprout was taken off display. Its leaf was removed and Sprout spent the winter in a greenhouse in temperatures of 65 to 70 degrees and was monitored for optimal moisture.
Essentially, Rondinella was trying to replicate the environment of an Indonesian jungle. She gave it a minimum of water and kept it warm.
“It’ll rot if it gets too wet,” she said. “And it has to always be warm because it’s from Sumatra — think hot, steamy, humid jungle.”
She repotted Sprout in March 2020. In May, Rondinella began to notice new growth. Sprout went on display on May 28 at just a few inches tall. The most it’s grown in one night was six inches.
Rondinella is watching for other signs that blooming is imminent.
She is waiting for the plant’s second bract to fall off the base. It’s visible in the live stream, she said. One already has fallen off.
The wrinkly part of the plant, called the spathe, will unfurl so visitors can see the maroon inside. It’s a specialty bract that encloses the spadix, the tall floral stalk. On its base will be tiny female flowers and male flowers will be at the top. The flowers are not visible, tucked back into the plant.
The flower heats up and the stink begins to spread. The female flowers then are receptive to pollen for a short period, and Rondinella will brush it on. The next morning or day, the male plants will release pollen.
The plant cannot pollinate itself.
“In nature, there would be beetles flying around and getting pollen from other plants and putting it on the plant,” she said.
The flower will stay in its peak for 24 to 36 hours and then the spathe will wither quickly as it goes dormant.
Rondinella will harvest seeds and hope they will germinate. The plant will produce a flower bud or a leaf. The next time Sprout comes out of dormancy, it will probably grow a leaf.
But blooming or not, the corpse plant is worth seeing, she said.
It’s the largest non-branching flower in the world.
“To me, it’s like nature’s art,” Rondinella said. “It’s just beautiful. Almost architectural. Yeah, it stinks, but this thing is hard to believe.”