Five-foot-tall ‘corpse flower’ blooms, briefly, at ECSU
The corpse flower that lives in the greenhouse at Eastern Connecticut State University in Willimantic is named Rhea, after the Titan daughter of the Greek gods of the earth and sky. Most of the time, ECSU’s Rhea doesn’t live up to that hype.
But for a few days this week, Rhea bloomed, about 5 feet tall, with a towering mustard yellow center and a petal that is celery-green on the outside and wine-red on the inside. Her blossoming is accompanied by a stench so foul she must be a deity, challenging the world to put up with it.
Then Rhea started shriveling. In a day or two, she’ll have receded back into the soil in her pot. Maybe she’ll bloom again in a few years. Only she knows when.
“It’s so ephemeral. It’s a real treat,” said Dr. Bryan Connolly, an assistant professor of biology. “When it happens, it’s basically a surprise and it only lasts 24 to 48 hours and then it’s gone.”
Connolly is the keeper of the corpse flower. The endangered species — scientific name Amorphophallus titanum — is native to Sumatra, an island in western Indonesia. It is a favorite of botanists worldwide, who glory in its surprise blooming, its titanic size and its noxious smell, which gives the corpse flower its name.
Connolly, who has never smelled a rotting human corpse, describes it as such: “a combination of a dead mouse, a rotting cabbage and sewage.”
In their natural habitat, the flowers need a strong stench, Connolly said; there are so few of them, they need to send out a strident call to pollinating insects, the kind drawn to dead animals or rotting meat.
“They can’t use their own pollen on their own stigma to make seeds,” Connolly said. “Essentially, they’re lonely. There’s only about 1,000 of them in the wild.”
Botanists, growing corpse flowers in greenhouses around the world, like to compete with each other for the tallest flower. Rhea, as statuesque as she is, or was, is nowhere near the tallest in the world. The tallest flowering on record is more than 10 feet tall at a botanical garden in Germany.
Connolly said the difficulty in pollinating them in captivity has led botanists to compile a stud book, similar to those used by horse breeders, which will be used to ship pollen to other cultivators to propagate the species.
“We sent our leaf material out for genetic testing. Hopefully it’ll be registered,” Connolly said.
Rhea has been at at ECSU since the 1990s, when biology Prof. Ross Koning brought the seeds. Like most corpse flowers, Rhea took about a decade before flowering for the first time. After the first 10 years, corpse flowers bloom, unexpectedly, whenever they choose to, usually every few years.
Across the greenhouse from Rhea is another corpse flower, this one between blooms, in its own pot. Its name is Hyperion, after another Titan. It is currently as unreflective of its namesake as Rhea will be in a day or two. Hyperion’s pot looks essentially empty.
The two flowers are surrounded by cannabis plants, used by students in the university’s new minor, cannabis studies.
While the corpse flowers lay dormant, bright green branches pop out of the soil beside them. Those are as much of a mystery as the flowers themselves. “You don’t know if that will be a leaf or a flower,” Connolly said.