The Santa Cruz corpse flower…resurrected!
An endangered tropical plant known as the corpse flower made a stink this week at the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum, as its enormous smelly flower miraculously bloomed after it seemed to die just days earlier.
Amorphophallus titanum requires a full decade before it’s ready to bloom. Once it does, the putrid stench of its massive, magenta flower can be smelled for miles, before the flower wilts within just a few days.
“People have said it's the worst smell they’ve ever smelled,” said Martin Quigley, the executive director of the arboretum.
With such a narrow timeframe to experience the flower’s unique qualities, Big Ed — the nickname for the corpse flower — gained a large following on social media. Anticipation for the flower's bloom grew commensurate with its massive spadix, which gained four to six inches a day as it reach its full height.
“I wanted to see a corpse flower in bloom pretty much my whole life,” said Jamie Cutter, a lecturer at UC Santa Cruz who visited the arboretum. “It's such a rare opportunity to see something that exists on the other side of the world in a forest that I would never be in.”
Many flowering plants are pollinated by bees and butterflies, but the corpse flower dupes insects that are drawn to the smell of rotting meat, like flies and beetles. Once the insects realize there isn’t any meat in the plant, they flee — covered in its pollen.
“Every insect for miles will smell rotting meat,” Quigley said. “This is an elaborate mating system to avoid inbreeding. It’s all about sex, and lust, and the desire to eat red meat.”
Hundreds packed into the arboretum to catch a glimpse — and a whiff — of the corpse flower last Friday, after arboretum staff announced on Facebook that Big Ed was getting ready to bloom.
But the festive Friday night flower crowd was in for disappointment.
“We hope this one is going to complete its cycle, but it won’t be tonight,” Quigley said to a crowd of crestfallen fans. “Yes, it’s a bummer. But that’s life, and that’s biology.”
Less than 24 hours later, the arboretum provided an update on social media saying the corpse flower was “truly a corpse.” They planned an autopsy to determine its cause of death.
It wasn’t just a tragedy for the botanically curious fans. Arboretum staff had planned to pollinate Big Ed with pollen from another corpse flower in Huntington Beach. That would produce viable seeds that could generate more offspring of the endangered flower.
“There are only about a thousand of these in the wild,” Quigley said. “Remarkably, it's the same habitat and the same numbers for the orangutan.”
He added the tropical Indonesian rainforest that is home to both orangutans and corpse flowers is being “scraped off” the planet right now and replaced with palm oil plantations.
“They’re highly endangered,” he said.
Few were more disappointed than Lincoln Taiz, a plant development and physiology professor emeritus at UC Santa Cruz, who calls himself the corpse flower’s “Godfather.” Taiz and his wife Lee Taiz both advocated for the arboretum to take in the corpse flower a decade ago.
“Obviously, this didn’t go according to plan,” he said. “There’s no point in cross pollinating if it doesn’t open up, because that’s the first step.”
Excitement about the corpse flower faded from social media as the arboretum’s accounts went silent. All that remained were nostalgic posts from the days when the bloom seemed imminent.
The days that followed were bleak. But importantly, they were also warm and humid. And on Monday evening this week, the corpse flower, and its stench, seemed to rise from the dead.
“It’s pretty miraculous,” said Quigley on Tuesday morning, after the flower had suddenly bloomed the previous night. He said cold weather was the culprit that prevented the tropical flower from opening. The recent heat and humidity provided the perfect conditions.
“Everybody was whining about how muggy it was, but that was just what it needed,” he said.
Onlookers described whiffs of rotten eggs and roadkill, funky cheese and “fish at the bottom of the trash can.”
“It smells like a wet, dead thing,” said Jamie Cutter, the corpse flower fan and UC Santa Cruz lecturer.
Lincoln Taiz, the Godfather, was standing downwind of the flower as he remarked on his enormous relief and “transcendent happiness.” The widespread excitement about the strange plant did nothing short of restore his faith in humanity.
“There's something about living things that we are drawn to and care about,” he said. “If we could only translate this into some sort of universal feeling for the environment, the world would be a better place.”
Arboretum staff cross-pollinated the plant on Monday evening shortly after it bloomed, promising an additional dose of hope for the species. But it seems the miraculous corpse flower revived a little bit of hope in its many fans and caretakers as well.