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Crowds gather to see – and smell – corpse flower at WSUV

A line of people gathered Tuesday morning to catch a glimpse and whiff of Titan VanCoug — the rare corpse flower at Washington State University Vancouver — quickly swelled to 100 or more visitors.

That’s not at all surprising given that the Amorphophallus titanum will only bloom for 24 to 48 hours, then die off. It began opening its leaves Monday around 8 p.m., revealing its purple innards and an odor like dirty socks and rotting flesh.

It’s the first time the massive plant has bloomed since Professor Steven R. Sylvester planted its seed 17 years ago. It started like any house plant, perched on his desk, but it soon grew too big for his office — as in, leaf stalks stretching to 14 feet tall. For a time, the flower grew in a stairwell of the campus’ science and engineering building. In its flowering stage, the plant stands at 4 feet tall.

Now located just outside the science building, the plant is fenced off to protect it from tens of thousands of expected visitors.

“Did you pull an all nighter?” a visitor shouted from the forming line.

“I got two hours of sleep. People were still coming in at 1:30 in the morning,” Sylvester said. The plant is open for public viewing from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday and, if the bloom continues, Wednesday.

An occasional breeze wafted the plant’s stench a good distance. Onlookers seemed unfazed until they caught a smell drifting through the air. No one turned tail and ran. Sylvester appeared unaffected, standing near the plant and answering questions about the plant’s origin and life cycle.

Around 8 a.m., Sylvester cut a small, rectangular hole into the surrounding spathe — the large leaf sheath surrounding the plant’s inner flower clusters — so he could access and pollinate the female flowers near the bottom of the plant. Sylvester told the onlooking crowd that cutting the spathe felt similar to slicing into a watermelon. Raising the spongy piece of plant to his nose, he assured the crowd it didn’t smell that bad.

Then, Sylvester took a paint brush and dipped it into a small bag of yellow pollen he received from the New York Botanical Garden and coated the female flowers. Corpse flowers cannot self-pollinate. The female flower loses it receptivity to pollen around the time the male flowers begin to open up.

The odor of the plant is meant to attract flesh flies and other carnivorous insects that help spread the pollen.

“Hopefully some house flies show up and help that spread,” Sylvester said. “But there are many unknowns. The weather will affect what’s going to happen.

“The goal of the pollination process is keeping the species alive. To me, it’s a crime to allow the extinction of an organism. The numbers are staggering.”

According to a recent report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, an estimated 1 million species are currently at risk. The report says the planet is now in the midst of its sixth mass extinction of plants and animals.

Visitors who came to the campus on Tuesday were aware of the plant’s rarity. When asked why they woke up early to look at a stinky flower, they did not hesitate to reply that it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Many parents used the occasion as a funky learning opportunity. Others identified as science or plant nerds. More still were simply curious.

Katherine Rodela, an assistant professor at WSU Vancouver, was there with her son, 8-year-old Rudy, before the large crowd formed. Rodela drove up from Southeast Portland so Rudy could see the plant before he went to his STEM-oriented summer camp for the day.

She said she’d heard colleagues talking about the plant for some time, but she didn’t know it had been relocated outside the science and engineering building, or that it would generate such a level of excitement.

“I think science should be accessible to everyone, and there’s real science behind what’s happening here,” Rodela said.

“It’s pretty cool,” Rudy said. “I could do without the smell.”

As Sylvester wrapped up operating on the plant, Crystal Wulff asked if it was difficult performing the microsurgery. He replied that it was, in fact, very difficult because he has a tremor and usually takes medication to soothe it.

“I know all about it. I’ve done micro surgeries on frog embryos” while working in a research lab at Oregon Health & Science University, said Wulff, a science teacher at Mountain View High School.

Wulff said she came to the view the corpse flower with two other teachers.

“It’s summertime; we have nothing to do,” she said with a laugh. “Anything that sparks curiosity in science, I’m into.”

Sylvester said the large curious crowd is exactly the effect he wanted with his plant pet project. He said he wants people to know about the research university and the work it’s doing.

Before university staff closed the door to the plant’s semi-cage, Vancouver couple Nathan and Trisha Ladd had a chance to get in close and snap selfies. Nathan Ladd was brave enough to lean into the flower and inhale. He pulled away with a grimace.

“It was terrible, like trash,” he said. “It actually didn’t seem that bad. But when you stick your face right in there … curiosity killed the cat.”


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