Back from the dead: Corpse flower blooms after all at UC Santa Cruz

Up close with the blooming corpse flower.
(Jody K. Biehl / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Tender, loving care from arboretum director Martin Quigley — and an unusually humid Monday — resurrected a bloom that was given up for dead over the weekend.

The UC Santa Cruz Arboretum’s corpse flower is back.

Just two days after its announced demise and less than 48 hours before a planned “autopsy,” the arboretum’s 5-foot-tall corpse flower resurrected itself Monday around 7:30 p.m. As promised, it produced a reddish-purple bloom that sent out a stench of rotting seafood for, seemingly, miles.

“It starts out as a stinky French cheese and as you get closer, it smells more like a dead whale,” reported Jody K. Biehl, Lookout’s Community Voices editor, who pushed through a crowd of 20 mostly UCSC-affiliated onlookers who had heard of the miracle to get a good view, photos and a whiff.

The flower is 3 feet wide and is the color of rotting meat — hence the plant’s name. More formally, it’s a titan arum or Amorphophallus titanum. That’s from the ancient Greek amorphos, “without form, misshapen” plus phallos, “penis.” and titanium, also the Greek, for pre-Olympian gods.

UC Santa Cruz Arboretum Director Martin Quigley with the blooming corpse flower.
(Jody K. Biehl / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Though that small crowd gathered at the unveiling Monday, the arboretum didn’t formally open or put out the word of the news. It opens for free viewing at 8 a.m. Tuesday, with large crowds expected. And as with previous recommendations, with limited onsite parking at its location just off High Street on the UCSC campus, the arboretum suggests visitors walk, ride a bike or take a bus. Good walking shoes are recommended.

The bloom is usually a 24-hour phenomenon, so it could stretch into Tuesday evening. In that case, the arboretum suggests visitors bring flashlights.

Only Saturday, the flower disappointed the community and arboretum staff by seeming to begin blooming and then fading. “Our corpse flower is truly a corpse,” the arboretum posted on social media.

On Monday evening, arboretum director Martin Quigley told those assembled of the revival.

“It rose from the dead after three days,” said Quigley, who had spent the previous few days caring for the corpse, and hoping.

Up close with the blooming corpse flower.
(Jody K. Biehl / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Suspecting that the recent cold evening temperatures might have caused the fizzle, he tended to the plant, positioning a small heater, providing steam and giving the flower 5 gallons of water to help it to bloom.

The unusual humidity Santa Cruz saw Monday looks to have made the difference.

“People were complaining it was like the East Coast here today, and the humidity did it,” said Quigley. “The flower performed.”

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 — until Monday.

Jim Velzy and Sylvia Childress, the former and current directors of the UCSC Greenhouses, respectively, have been maintaining it in the campus’ greenhouse facilities, given that the plant, native to Sumatra, Indonesia, needs a tropical environment in order to thrive. UCSC greenhouse staff have been tending to the titan arum on campus since 2013.

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

This is the first time this particular flower has bloomed. Following this event, it will now be able to bloom every three to four years.

But beware, the stench might be hard to shake. “I still had a headache from it an hour after I left,” Biehl said. Two hours later, she reported, “I still smell it on me. Need a shower.”

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