A dumpster behind a seafood restaurant. A garbage disposal that’s sat for too long. A pier littered with fish guts. Rotting flesh.
This is how onlookers described the smell of a 13-year-old Amorphophallus titanum, or corpse flower, that began to bloom Thursday evening in N.C. State University’s Marye Anne Fox Greenhouse.
“It was exactly what I recalled from blooming the other species I used to grow,” said Brandon Huber, the master’s student who for more than 10 years has cared for the flower, which he named Lupin after a Harry Potter character. “Only it’s stronger because of the size.”
This is Lupin’s first bloom, and it will last only two or three days before the petals drop. The plant won’t bloom again for another five years. The largest flowering plant in the world, the corpse flower gets its name from the pungent odor it gives off when it blooms to attract pollinators that would be most effective at spreading its pollen.
Friday morning, Huber could smell Lupin from the other side of the building as he walked in.
“Right then I knew – there it is,” Huber said.
Fans were turned on in the greenhouse to provide some relief for the steady flow of onlookers. Raleigh attorney Howard Kurtz was one of the few who got a direct whiff of Lupin, sticking his nose in a small hole cut in the base of the maroon flower where Huber artificially inserted pollen.
“Rotting fish,” Kurtz said, drawing on his experience in criminal defense to distinguish between the smells of a human corpse and dead fish. “I’ve smelled dead bodies. It smells more like rotting fish.”
Kurtz visited for fear he would never have the chance to see and small a corpse flower again. “It’s spectacular,” he said. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
Anne Savage, a master’s student in parks, recreation and tourism management, joined the swath of onlookers who turned the greenhouse into somewhat of a tourist attraction Friday afternoon. Savage had never heard of a corpse flower before and expected the smell to be worse than it was, thanks in part to the fans.
“I got a good whiff, and it’s definitely fishy,” Savage said. “It wasn’t too bad.”
Brian Jackson, a professor of horticulture science, brought a thermal camera to measure the heat the plant gave off.
“This plant is one of several species on Earth that uses thermogenesis, heat generation, as part of its mechanism to attract pollinators, which are dung beetles, flies, things that would normally be attracted to rotting flesh,” Jackson said. “To simulate a rotting corpse, it’s got one, the color, two, the heat, and third that smell.”
Jackson’s thermal camera measured the flower at 10 degrees higher than room temperature on average, peaking at 87.3 degrees.
According to Huber, there have been only about 200 successful corpse flower blooms in captivity in recorded history. Lupin will be used for hormone studies after the bloom fades.
Huber’s brother and father came to visit from Pennsylvania when they heard Lupin was finally blooming. Brother Christopher recalled that when Brandon was a teen he won first prize in a contest after he timed the blooming of a smaller odoriferous flower with the show.
“He stunk up our whole house for a week,” Christopher said.
Huber’s father, Ron, said his son started taking a special interest in their family garden when he was about 7 years old. From there he began to get interested in more and more exotic and unusual plant life.
“At an early age he took a really heavy interest in it, and it just blossomed from there,” Huber said. “Pun intended.”
Gavin Stone: 919-829-8937
See and smell for yourself
The N.C. State University greenhouse where Lupin lives will be open from 9 a.m. until 6 p.m. on Saturday and 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. on Sunday. Park in the Dan Allen Deck, off Dan Allen Drive, or along Yarbrough Drive and look for the greenhouses. There will be signs and volunteers to point you in the right direction.