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Flower blooms at Stan State in rare event
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Professors Michael Fleming and Stuart Wooley stand next to the blooming corpse flower in the Stanislaus State greenhouse. - photo by ANGELINA MARTIN/The Journal
A once-in-a-decade event took place at Stanislaus State this week when the university’s resident corpse flower bloomed for the first time.

The corpse flower, Amorphophallus titanum or titan arum, named for the rotten-meat stench its bloom produces, is native to Sumatra, Indonesia, and blooms every seven or eight years. Its appearance in U.S. botanical gardens and greenhouses is rare with fewer than 200 blooms ever recorded. On Tuesday, Stanislaus State’s corpse flower joined the exclusive list.

The Stanislaus State greenhouse was able to welcome a corpse flower thanks to a stroke of luck in 2011, when Biological Sciences Professor Stuart Wooley requested and was given one of the plants while working on an unrelated fellowship at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. The corpse flower corm, similar to a bulb, he received was a gift from the University of Washington.

“I’ve been a botany student for years, and I didn’t see one until I was almost 40,” Wooley said. “I was pretty excited. I’d never seen one in real life.”

Upon arriving in Turlock, the corm was planted and after several cycles of growth and a dormant phase, Wooley placed the corpse plant in a south-facing window on the second floor of Naraghi Hall. For at least two years, custodian Choy Saeteurn cared for it, watering and feeding the plant as it continued to grow.

The corpse plant finally was moved to the greenhouse around 2017 where it has grown to between 20 and 40 pounds, cared for collectively by Wooley and faculty colleagues Andrew Gardner and Michael Fleming, who have shared responsibility for watering and caring for the plants in the 30-by-90-foot greenhouse for many years.

To celebrate the bloom, Wooley and Fleming hosted a Facebook Live event on Tuesday, answering questions from the curious public and sharing facts about the rare event.

According to Wooley, corpse flowers can grow to be up to nine feet tall when they bloom. They’re the largest single unbranched inflorescence, or cluster of flowers on a stem, in the world. The trio of professors had no idea when the corpse flower would bloom, but noticed last week that the spathe was sticking out of the plant and that it was preparing to blossom.

Upon blooming, viewers could see the “petal” or spathe, tightly pressed around the spadix, the tall central structure, as the inflorescence continued to grow. The spathe was green for a while, but when it started to turn a reddish color, that was the signal it would be opening soon. At the base of the spadix are dozens of tiny little flowers, each about the size of a pencil eraser. When the spathe opens, the plant gives off a rotten-meat smell, which attracts flies and carrion beetles to pollinate the flowers if they bring pollen from another corpse lily. If the plant is pollinated, the corpse lily will produce tiny little fruits that will contain seeds.

According to Wooley and Fleming, the scent is similar to rotten cabbage and sulfuric in nature. Once in full bloom, Stanislaus State’s corpse flower measured 59 inches tall and 22 inches wide. In addition to its distinct odor, the plant also can heat up to 90 degrees in order to mimic a rotting corpse on the rainforest floor.

“The cool thing about it is it did exactly what we thought it would,” Wooley said during the livestream. “It definitely has a not good smell.”

The plant’s scent can be detected even from outside of the greenhouse, Wooley added. The bloom lasted about 24 to 36 hours, with the blossom drying up and falling apart as time wore on.

While it was quite the sight to see, Wooley said there was more than meets the eye when it comes to rare events like the corpse flower bloom.

“There are a lot of great principles you can teach, botanical principles,” Wooley said. “Teaching about what an aggregation of a bunch of flowers is — an inflorescence — which is a basic botany term that introductory botany students would learn. But you can also talk about conservation of plants and why it matters. For example, academic greenhouses and botanic gardens are working together to preserve these and other plants in the face of habitat loss in developing areas of the world, like Sumatra, where, in trying to develop and improve their economy, they’re chopping down rainforests to make way for coconut palm plantations. Asking students to consider how to balance conservation and preservation with economic development and having them evaluate and grapple with real-world issues can be part of that conversation. There are a lot of questions and issues that can be developed around this for students. It can be interesting to students in many ways, and not just biology students.”

Video of the corpse flower bloom can be found on Stanislaus State’s Facebook page.

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The corpse flower, Amorphophallus titanum or titan arum, named for the rotten-meat stench its bloom produces, is native to Sumatra, Indonesia, and blooms every seven or eight years. - photo by Photo Contributed