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SCIENCE OBSERVER

Something Rotten in Seattle

William Cannon

In the land of year-round flower gardens, where the Green River Killer and Ted Bundy planted fellow citizens on banks and hillsides, where the movie Hype documented the emergence of grunge music, it's no small wonder that, for a few glorious, putrid days this summer, the Seattle media and the public responded to the siren song of the University of Washington news office. A corpse flower was about to bloom.

Click to Enlarge Image

June 29. According to a press release, the flower is "an Amorphophallus titanum, also called Devil's Tongue or Titan Arum, the giant 'corpse flower' native to Sumatra." Douglas Ewing, manager of the university's botany greenhouse, grew the plant from seed six years ago. Now it's a Little Shop of Horrors wonder, 5 feet tall and "ready to bloom for the first time." It's also the first time one will bloom "west of Missouri." Although corpse flowers have bloomed in the United States only nine other times this century, two of those were earlier this year, in the East. "It's still rare when it flowers," Ewing says, sounding a little defensive. "It's still going to be unusual because it takes so much room and takes up so much warm space." How about a sound bite? "A plant that reeks of carrion probably isn't going to be big with the home gardener." And sex: We learn that because of their phallic shape these plants are "valued by some as aphrodisiacs or cures for impotence." Intimate details about its long, tubular spadix follow. The hook is set.

July 1. The news office issues a picture and a statement under the heading, "Image shows 'corpse flower' as it nears blooming." The text mentions again that it will be only the 10th time this century A. titanum has bloomed, "and the first time west of Missouri." This time, however, there is no mention of five other blooms the past two years. "In the first day of blooming, it will smell like rotting flesh. The bloom is likely to last only a couple of days, though it could last three or four."

July 7. Another press release trumpets the blessed event. "The stench of dead and bloated flesh drifted through the University of Washington botany greenhouse." The engorged flower now stands 6 feet tall. Ewing is elated. "It feels so much like when my two boys were born," he says. The odor "means it's doing what's natural, and I hope it continues to escalate and just drives us out of here." In Sumatra, the smell attracts carrion beetles and other pollinators. Here, it attracts students and other visitors. A little science slips in: "There are more than 170 species similar to the A. titanum, and many have distinct odor and heating properties. [Ewing] is using an infrared camera to study the powerful heating of the plant's spadix by internal chemical reactions. That process, called thermogenesis, generates the odor that attracts the insects." There is talk of a sequel. The chances are slim. But what if? "In the wild the plant can bloom every two to three years, but it is uncertain whether the UW plant will ever bloom again. There is no recorded instance of that ever happening with an A. titanum outside its natural habitat."

July 8. A "media advisory" signals the beginning of the end. "The corpse flower that started blooming in the University of Washington botany greenhouse yesterday began to collapse this afternoon." Its once-proud spadix "started its collapse about 24 hours after the plant began to open Wednesday afternoon, when it released its powerful stench, like rotting animal flesh, for several hours." Not to despair. It "could take a day for the spadix to completely collapse.… The plant remains on public display. More than 1,000 people viewed the plant today, in addition to more than 1,000 who saw it during the last several days. It is the 10th time this century an A. titanum has bloomed in the United States and the first time west of St. Louis."

July 9. The news office issues a pictorial post-mortem: "Pictures show three phases of UW botanist's rare 'corpse flower.'" The captions recap the tumescent putrefaction blow by blow. A final press release ends like death warmed over: "The UW blooming was only the 10th instance in the United States this century, and the first west of St. Louis."

Epilogue. A corpse flower epidemic? In August, CBS News—among others, no doubt—reports that for only the 11th time this century, a corpse flower has bloomed in the United States, this time in San Marino, California. Thousands line up to see and sniff it. There is no mention of St. Louis.—William J. Cannon


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