By Jeanna Packard and Mary Alice Casey
No one willingly takes in the aroma of rotting road kill. But when the stench is coming from a fleshy maroon flower that stands up to 5 feet tall, many will take a whiff.
The "corpse flower," recognized for its unpleasant aroma and exotic look, has attracted more than 200 people to the Department of Environmental and Plant Biology greenhouse since the first of four Amorphophallus konjac plants began to bloom late winter quarter.
The last is about to pop, and the flower -- and its signature smell -- should last for two to four days.
Harold Blazier, who has managed the greenhouse for more than 19 years, alerted his department and College of Arts and Sciences colleagues and local garden club members that the plants were coming into their own a few weeks ago and has enjoyed seeing the response.
"Almost everyone steps back after getting the full effect and looks around grinning in disbelief," Blazier said. "Some people, even after getting their first whiff, just can't resist sticking their nose even closer, like that bad a smell couldn't be coming from a flower. On hot and sunny days, it has been powerful enough to bring tears to some people's eyes."
The plant, also known as the "Voodoo Lily," "Devil's Tongue" and "Snake Palm," is a member of the Aroid family native to Southeast Asia. Its large corm -- the base of the plant -- is used as a thickening agent in soups and stews. The flower's coloring and odor mimic that of putrid meat, making it irresistible to its pollinators, which are flies.
Although not extremely rare in horticultural circles, the Amorphophallus konjac isn't something your average houseplant lover would cultivate. More uncommon is a larger corpse flower, Amorphophallus titanum, which can grow 8 to 15 feet tall and 3 to 8 feet wide and produce a flower of equal proportions. The greenhouse has three of these corms that should bloom in three or four years -- provided Blazier can continue to make room in the greenhouse to accommodate them.
The greenhouse -- overflowing with exotic and significant plants -- is used mostly for teaching, and the collection changes constantly to accommodate faculty members' requests. Blazier and Assistant Greenhouse Manager Aaron Mather barter and swap with other universities, botanical gardens and private collectors to meet the demand.
The facility boasts an extensive orchid collection, several carnivorous plants (including some in a bog in the extensive garden outside the greenhouse), cycads and ferns that illustrate plant evolution and an ethnobotany collection that includes vanilla, coffee, banana, pineapple, papaya, citrus, coconut palm and star fruit.
"The greenhouse, for our department, is so central to our teaching mission because its supplies materials for everything from our introductory courses for non-majors all the way up through our courses for graduate students," said Professor Morgan Vis, interim chair of the department.
"I can actually bring in a branch of a coffee tree with a coffee cherry so students can see where the coffee bean comes from," she added. "That is a much more powerful experience for them than just seeing a picture of it on a PowerPoint."
The greenhouse provides material and assistance for about 14 courses and 1,000 students per year, said Blazier, who teaches plant propagation and greenhouse management. Even drawing and photography students drop by to capture the collection's treasures.
And while the greenhouse works primarily to satisfy teaching and research needs, it also welcomes members of the university community interested in a break from the routine or looking for tips about problematic plants at home.
"We want it to be available and accessible to everyone," Blazier said. "It's neat to have people appreciate what we have here."