‘Our corpse flower is truly a corpse’: Bloom appears off for famous UCSC plant

Martin Quigley of the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum gives a Saturday update on the corpse flower.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

After a false alarm and warning signs Friday, the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum delivered the news Saturday afternoon that the corpse plant would not bloom after all — to the disappointment of Santa Cruzans who had hoped to get a noseful of the flower’s infamous stench.

Saying “Our corpse flower is truly a corpse,” staff at the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum said Saturday afternoon that the huge plant that captured the community’s interest would not bloom after all.

“After careful consideration, we reached the conclusion that our corpse flower is truly a corpse,” the arboretum wrote on social media. “We will be performing an autopsy of the flower Wednesday morning at 10 a.m. to figure out why the flower did not bloom.”

There were warning signs Friday at UCSC, after the arboretum put the word out — “IT’S HAPPENING!!!”, it wrote on social media, with Lookout and other Monterey Bay media outlets following up with alerts — that the 10-year-old plant was beginning to bloom.

But after dozens flocked to campus only to be disappointed, officials said the flower was “not progressing” as expected, writing later on Instagram, “With this trickster, we aren’t sure about anything!”

“The flower started to heat up last night,” arboretum director Martin Quigley told a hopeful crowd earlier Saturday. The plant heated itself up to 91 degrees Friday and “it started to stink, but it never continued. It shut down, it stopped warming up around sunset. It should have gone up to 98 degrees.”

“We think it may have aborted,” Quigley told onlookers including Lookout’s Kevin Painchaud. “It might be the end of the road for this one.”

Quigley said arboretum staff planned to again pollinate the titan arum plant known for the stench it emits as it blooms, a window that lasts just a day before the flower starts to decay, but hours later they delivered a verdict few would have expected a scant 24 hours earlier.

It will likely be years before the corpse plant arrives back at this stage.

The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Biological Sciences Greenhouse went through the process last year, with the flower blooming after its own dicey moments.

At the point when the flower was about to bloom, greenhouse manager Paul Engevold told WUWM-FM in May 2021, “we’d become very, very nervous. Anything could cause it to abort — lack of heat, lack of humidity, lack of enough stored reserves.”

Earlier this week, Quigley had described the plant’s infamous stench as a “dead cow in your living room with a layer of s--- and then some vomit and dead fish.” The smell attracts pollinators like flies and beetles seeking to lay their eggs on decaying meat. The flower blooms for about 24 hours and then begins to collapse.

The arboretum first started posting on its Instagram about the plant July 14. On July 16, it said it expected the corpse flower “to fully bloom in the coming days.” Fast-forward two weeks and hundreds of frantic and excited Instagram and Facebook comments later, and disappointment reigned.

Jim Velzy and Sylvia Childress, the former and current directors of the UCSC Greenhouses, respectively, have been maintaining it in the greenhouse facilities. The plant, native to Sumatra, Indonesia, needs a tropical environment in order to thrive.

Each year since it started germinating, the corpse flower has grown a single large leaf that resembles a tree. It can reach a blooming stage only when the corm stores sufficient energy and grows to about 35 pounds.

Here’s what the Chicago Botanic Garden says about what comes next in a typical corpse plant life cycle: “Blooming is not the end of the life cycle for the titan arum. If pollinated, it will produce fruit for the next nine months or so. Once the fruit is ripe, it will die back, and after a year or so of dormancy, will emerge as a leaf for the next few cycles until it is ready to bloom again.”

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