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Pungent corpse flower finally blooms. Want to grow one?

Rose McNary, 8, leans in to smell the corpse flower on Feb. 8 at the University of Minnesota in St. Paul, Ill. Afterward she said “ it smelled like dead fish but not as bad as a three-day-old porkchop, I thought it would be worse.”
Rose McNary, 8, leans in to smell the corpse flower on Feb. 8 at the University of Minnesota in St. Paul, Ill. Afterward she said “ it smelled like dead fish but not as bad as a three-day-old porkchop, I thought it would be worse.” Minneapolis Star Tribune

Long past its due date, the University of Minnesota’s corpse flower has made a reluctant opening, smelling more like pungent produce than rotting meat upon blooming.

For the first time in seven years, the 6-foot-tall flower bloomed in early February at its home in the university’s College of Biological Sciences Conservatory in St. Paul, Minn., a “ta-da!” that was many days behind schedule.

Now the conservatory is dealing with an apparently shy performer. It seems the flower’s bloom is a bit lacking of all its glory.

Monday morning, two conservatory staff members stood next to the flower atop a grate 3 feet above the floor and were coaxing a more robust bloom with pollen borrowed from Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn., which has a corpse flower of its own.

And how is that done? Very carefully, of course. The staffers were dipping paintbrushes into the pollen and then reaching shoulder-deep into the flower to leave the enticing matter inside.

At this point, the flower’s scent is more like that of spoiled cabbage than off-putting meat.

Lisa Aston Philander, Curator at the Biological Sciences Conservatory, uses a heat sensor to monitor the Corpse flower which heats itself up to make the smell go farther. It smells the way it does to attract flies as pollinators.

Lisa Aston Philander, Curator at the Biological Sciences Conservatory, uses a heat sensor to monitor the Corpse flower which heats itself up to make the smell go farther. It smells the way it does to attract flies as pollinators.

The notoriously noxious corpse flower, native to the equatorial rain forests of Sumatra, Indonesia, uses its odor to cut through the many scents competing for the pollinating attention of the sweat bee. The bees can smell the plant from miles away.

Known more academically as the Amorphophallus titanum – which translates to “misshapen giant penis” – the flower blooms for only a few days.

Gustavus Adolphus’ corpse flower last raised its stink in late 2013. A corpse flower also bloomed in 2008 at Como Park’s Marjorie McNeely Conservatory in St. Paul.

If you like challenges, try growing one

The corpse flower, Amorphophallus titanum, is a single inflorescence that reaches an astounding height of 6 to 9 feet tall. It only flowers once every 7-8 years and only 3-5 blooming events. The difficulty in growing comes in the consistent growing conditions for a period of seven years or more. You must mimic its native environment of tropical Sumatra. For instance, every year, once the plant dies back the corm must be moved into a larger pot. If the corm is nicked or damaged, it can allow disease organisms to kill the plant. Humidity has to be 80 percent, the ambient air temperature needs to be above 60 degrees, and preferably above 75 degrees. It won’t hurt the plant if the temperature dips into the 60s for a few days in a row but it shouldn’t be in the 60s for months at a time, keep the soil moist, but not soggy, and use sterile soil when transplanting.

Repotting should be done during dormancy when the petiole and leaf collapses and rots away at the end of each year. The potting soil is washed away from the corm and the corm is carefully lifted and placed in a new, larger pot. The underground corm supports the leaf stage and then every year the corm grows larger. When the corm reaches 40-50 pounds, it sends up a bloom instead of its usual leaf and petiole.

It needs a growing environment that gets good light but not hot noonday sun. Filtered sunlight or partial shade is perfect. Corpse Flower grows best in natural sunlight. If you are growing inside, provide as much natural light as possible and supplement with full spectrum fluorescent bulbs.

It’s important to water the plant accurately, that is, allow the soil surface to dry a little between watering but never let it become bone dry, yet don’t keep it soggy either. The tropical forest soils are light and open, yet the rainfall is often heavy so the plant almost always has some moisture in contact with its roots.

The growing situation needs to have the eventual space to contain the plant, as the petiole and leaf can rise up to 10 feet or more as the plant matures. Insects are not generally a problem, however, root disease can be a problem and kill the plant so handle the dormant corm with care and water accurately.

Corpse Flower is a moderate feeder needing a balanced fertilizer as the growing season starts, being sure to taper off as fall approaches. As they do prefer lower light, don’t overdo the feed. A top-dressing of an organic fertilizer a couple times during the growing season is adequate. If you are applying liquid fertilizer, you can add some with every watering during the active growing season.

Periods of extreme dryness or a cool prolonged dip in temperature can cause great harm to the plant. Grow in warm temperatures with bright, filtered light, water accurately and be consistent in your repotting. Several years from now, you could enjoy a sensational flowering event that’s news worthy and rare.

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