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Fragrance of the Dead

  • Sue Mescher, of Danville, Vt., looks up at the over seven-foot-tall Morphy, an Amorphophallus Titanum plant, which is in the process of blooming in the Dartmouth College Life Sciences Greenhouse Thursday, September 22, 2016. The flower is currently growing up to four inches a day and stands over seven feet tall. Mescher was passing through on the way to New York City and did not want to miss the opportunity to stop and see the flower. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • The spathe, or leaf, of the corpse flower meets the spadix, at top right, which has been growing about four inches a day, Thursday, September 22, 2016.(Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Dartmouth College students Sarah Oh, of Los Angeles, Calif., right; Min Hyung Kang, of Seoul, South Korea, top left; and Chae Kim, also of Seoul, bottom left, visit the Dartmouth Life Sciences Greenhouse in Hanover, N.H., on September 22, 2016, to see Morphy, an Amorphophallus titanum plant that is in the process of blooming. The plant’s flower began to open on Friday, September 23, and it is now in the period when it will smell like rotting flesh. In the wild, the smell would draw carnivorous insects to pollinate the plant. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Rhiannon Greywolf, of Strafford, Vt., looks in toward the pollen area of an Amorphophallus titanum blooming for the first time in the plant's eight years in the Murdough Greenhouse at Dartmouth College on June 5, 2011. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Saturday, September 24, 2016

In a world of packaged, homogenized, digitalized, photo-shopped, prettified, Snapchatted and Instagrammed experiences, a corpse flower in full blossom, or stench, is as unmediated and rare an experience as you can get.

Which is probably why hundreds of visitors a day are flocking to the Life Sciences Greenhouse at Dartmouth College to stare at Morphy the corpse flower, which began to bloom Friday afternoon. When it is fully open, it releases a scent that has been likened to rotting meat, decomposing flesh, urine and excrement — take your pick.

But, does the corpse flower smell like its name?

Worse, actually, said Kim DeLong, the greenhouse manager and curator. Before DeLong took the job at Dartmouth, she worked as a greenhouse manager at the University of California, Berkeley. As part of her studies, DeLong has been around cadavers; so she knows the difference between the smell of real corpses, and botanical imitators.

At a little more than 7 feet tall, Morphy is a prime, 13-year-old specimen of Titan arum or Amorphophallus titanum, which, said DeLong, translates roughly as “giant misshapen penis.”

The college acquired it nine years ago from a corpse flower collector who lives in New Hampshire, DeLong said.

Morphy has its own web page, and its own live video feed. It stands imperturbable, with the green spathe surrounding the hollow, spongy spadix. The spathe looks like a cabbage, or as one visitor called it, a head of romaine lettuce.

When the spathe opens, its interior reveals itself to be a deep burgundy. The resemblance of that burgundy interior to rare meat attracts the flies and beetles that are its natural pollinators. Morphy looks like a jack-in-the-pulpit, which is native to New England, on steroids, or an Audrey II the mutating, carnivorous plant in the film and stage versions of Little Shop of Horrors.

On average the corpse flower blooms every six years, although Morphy last bloomed in 2011, DeLong said. As it prepares to flower, the plant puts on extraordinary growth, from 3 to 4 inches a day. When the plant’s growth slows that is one indication that it is getting ready to bloom. The flower is open for only two to three days, and the smell, which is released by the female flowers, is at its most intense in the first 12 hours, DeLong said.

When it flowers in nature, the flies and beetles are attracted by the very scent that repels humans. At the greenhouse, DeLong and staff will act as the pollinators; the plant cannot self-pollinate because its male and female flowers are open and fertile at different times.

They will cut at least one window, possibly two, into the bottom of the spadex to get at the female flowers which are arranged in circular rows. Then, they pollinate the female flowers using paintbrushes.

They use pollen collected from another corpse flower, not Morphy, said greenhouse assistant Terry Barry, because they want to expand the gene pool. Once they’ve collected Morphy’s pollen they save it and share it with other botanical gardens.

“You can think of me as a beetle,” DeLong said to a visitor, explaining how the pollination works.

Titan arum, which thrives in heat and humidity, is indigenous only to the Indonesian island of Sumatra. The first plant in the West was brought in the 1880s to the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in London, DeLong said. It’s estimated, DeLong said, that between the 1880s and 2008, there have been some 157 blooms of the corpse flower in botanical gardens or arboretums throughout the world.

But the corpse flower is under threat, as large swaths of Indonesian forest are being leveled to make way for palm-oil plantations, DeLong said. It is possible that, one day, the only chance for the corpse flower’s survival will lie with botanical gardens, she added. Educating the public about the rare plants it houses is part of the greenhouse’s mission, she said.

Natalie Frost came from Windsor with her mother for a second visit, and plans to return when Morphy opens. She had her photograph taken next to the plant, to show the difference in scale between her (small) and Morphy (large). As she left, other visitors drifted in, cell phones in hand, taking pictures.

People are drawn to the corpse flower because, DeLong said, it’s “so cool, so unusual. It shows the bizarreness of nature.”

DeLong and Barry estimated on Thursday that Morphy might bloom early next week. But their prognostications have fallen short before, Barry said with a laugh.

“Morphy’s fooled us every single time,” she said. “The flower is on its own schedule, not everybody else’s.”

The greenhouse has added hours to accommodate the flow of visitors. It will be open today from 8 a.m. to noon; Sunday 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.; and weekdays 8:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Check the website at http://www.dartmouth.edu/grnhouse/index.shtml for updates, hours and the live video feed of the plant.

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com.