A bud from the largest flowering plant species in the world is set to bloom this weekend in a greenhouse at N.C. State University.
The titan arum, or Amorphophallus titanum, is also known for its smell, which mimics the scent of rotting flesh to attract insects that spread its pollen, earning it a more common name: the corpse flower.
But Brandon Huber, an NCSU graduate student who’s been caring for the plant for about 10 years, calls it Lupin, after the Harry Potter character.
“This is the flagship plant,” Huber said. “It’s the world’s largest flowering plant, and to bloom that is kind of a big deal in the horticulture world.”
Never miss a local story.
Huber expects the flower to bloom either Friday or Saturday, based on trends he’s seen online from other growers. Once it blooms, the flower will stink for two to three days and collapse after five to seven days – a brief climax to a 13-year lifespan.
Lupin was six feet two inches tall Wednesday evening. It had been growing at a rate of five to six inches per day over the last month, until it slowed to two inches per day this week.
“We’ve slowed down a lot, which signals that it’s getting ready to flower,” Huber said.
Originally from Philadelphia, Huber has been interested in plants from a young age, working with ornamental plants in a greenhouse where he developed a special affinity for exotic plants.
The titan arum is the definition of exotic. It grows naturally only in Sumatra, a large tropical island in Indonesia where it is endangered. Huber acquired this one on a visit to The Huntington Library Botanical Gardens in Huntington Beach, Calif., where he got a behind-the-scenes tour from the curator. Huber knew the botanical garden raised them and asked if he could buy one.
“He comes back with this little bulb, and he’s like, ‘Here, if you can take this back in your luggage with you, it’s yours,’” Huber said.
After years of carefully balancing Lupin’s water intake through cycles of dormancy and growth, Huber knew the plant had grown too big to keep in his apartment. And he certainly couldn’t risk letting it flower in his building.
He found a home for it in NCSU’s Marye Anne Fox Greenhouse, where he is working toward his master’s degree. The greenhouse doesn’t normally accept personal plants from students for its viewing area, but once curator Diane Mays heard it was a corpse flower, she immediately accepted.
“I’ve never seen one in person, so when he said, ‘This is a personal plant but I want to bring it down,’ I was like, ‘Oh yeah, bring it down,’” Mays said.
The greenhouse isn’t open to the public, but people can follow the flower’s progress on Twitter using #Lupin2016 or watch the livestream at go.ncsu.edu/flower, neither of which convey the smell.
Huber is getting a master’s in horticultural science and focuses on breeding stevia, a natural sugar substitute. Though the corpse flower isn’t in his area of study, he said bringing Lupin to bloom is “an accomplishment for sure.”
“I also feel honored that I’ve been able to get to this point because a lot of people try to grow these and they fail,” he said. “And if it wasn’t for the greenhouse letting me house it, I don’t know what I would’ve done with it.”
Clyde Sorenson, a professor of entomology at NCSU, came to the greenhouse to see the flower in person Wednesday. He said the corpse flower’s stench is an adaptation to bring as many insects as possible to spread its pollen.
“It’s a pretty exceptional example of a fairly common pollination technique,” Sorenson said. “There are lots of other plants that stink like dead things, but none of them get this big. That’s the biggest single flower structure in the world.”
Gavin Stone: 919-829-8937