It’s not often that people are pleased just for the foul odor of rotting meat, but it’s what the stench signals at the Gustavus Adolphus College Nobel Hall of Science: the ultra-rare bloom of a corpse flower.
Also known as amorphophallus titanum, the aptly-named corpse flower takes its name from its blood-red petals and its pungent smell of carrion during bloom. But the colossal plant’s rancid display is exceptionally infrequent. The corpse flower blooms around once every three years for just one 48 hour window.
On June 6, the Nobel Hall greenhouse was unexpectedly visited by the first bloom of Gemini I. The plant was spawned from one of the 20 corpse flower seeds Gustavus Professor of Chemistry Brian O’Brien received in 1993. That same batch of seeds produced Gustavus icon Perry, the first corpse flower to bloom in Minnesota in 2007, attracting 7,000 visitors.
“It went up so fast, we didn’t have time to plan anything, but we did open the greenhouse and put an announcement on Facebook and some other social media,” said O’Brien. “There was a pretty good stream of people coming through here actually. Even with the relatively small amount of publicity, it was a success.”
Gemini I has a history of catching Gustavus faculty by surprise. When it was first planted, the Gemini seed produced twin corpse flowers Gemini I and Gemini II. While Gemini II was anticipated to bloom shortly after its sibling, the flower has instead sprouted a leaf stalk.
During its roughly 40-year lifespan, the corpse flower alternates between leafing and blooming. The massive leaf structure almost resembles a tree and can grow around 8-15 feet tall. Energy from the sun is absorbed through the leaves and stored for the flower’s eventual bloom. After 12-18 months, the leaf structure withers and the corpse flower will renew the leaf cycle or begin to flower.
Despite its name, the corpse flower is actually a large cluster of flowers called an inflorescence. Hundreds of male and female flowers are hidden underneath the plant’s violet red frills, called a spathe, and at the bottom of its tall tubular structure, called a spadix.
Flies and other pollinators are attracted to the flowers by the corpse flower’s trademark stink of carrion.
“The smell goes through a series of foul odors. Sometimes it will smell like rotting sauerkraut and switch over to rotting meat and then to rotting fish,” said O’Brien. ”When we have an event, one of our students had an excellent idea to put a lectern outside the greenhouse with a note pad on it to ask people what they thought it smelled like and their impressions. You can see, if you go through that, the fragrance is changing over two to three days.”
To prevent self-pollination the female and male flowers open at different points during the corpse flower’s bloom, though Perry surprisingly self-pollinated in its 2010 bloom.
Those who missed the recent bloom may not have to wait too long for another. A third corpse flower in the Gustavus greenhouse, bearing a tall, leafy stalk, which reaches over the rafters, is anticipated to end its leafing cycle soon and bloom at some point over the next several months.