Skip to main content
Spring 2012
Print Bookmark and Share

CALS Notes

The (Not So) Sweet Smell of Success

A young visitor inspects the stinky titan arum bloom, watched by plant biology Ph.D. candidate Monica Ramirez Carvalho.
Credit: Alan Nyiri

A young visitor inspects the stinky titan arum bloom, watched by plant biology Ph.D. candidate Monica Ramirez Carvalho.

By Stacey Shackford

Wee Stinky made big waves across campus and around the world when it began to bloom on March 18. Approximately 10,000 people flocked to campus, waiting in line for hours to see—and smell—the rare “corpse plant” during its brief two-day bloom, and thousands more tuned in online to watch a live video feed.

The titan arum (Amorphophallus titanum) wasn’t exactly wee, towering above the crowds at 67 inches (nearly 6 feet) tall. But it was stinky, with some describing the scent as a cross between rotting cabbage and decaying fish, with hints of garlic, strong cheese, and mothballs.

In the rainforests of Sumatra, the plant’s native habitat, the scent is meant to attract carrion flies, which feast on rotting flesh, to aid in pollination.

What looks like an individual flower is actually a group of flowers called an inflorescence. The actual flowers are very small and hidden inside. There are about 450 female flowers, which open for a day, and 500-1,000 male flowers, which open later and provide pollen for one day. If successful, bright red fruits are formed.

In cultivation, it generally takes seven to 10 years to bloom and may die or flower only rarely thereafter.

The Cornell specimen was grown from seed from a plant that flowered at the University of Wisconsin in 2002, and it became part of the Department of Plant Biology’s Liberty Hyde Bailey Conservatory collection. This is the first time it has flowered.

During its bloom, faculty and students took several scent samples and pollinated the plant with pollen from Binghamton University, where a titan arum bloomed a few years ago.

The departments of Plant Biology and Horticulture, and greenhouse managers from the Cornell University Agriculture Experiment Station, opened the doors of the Kenneth Post greenhouse to the public as soon as the plant showed signs of imminent blooming on March 14, and kept them open well into the night once it opened.

“So many people thanked us for opening it up the public and providing them with an incredible opportunity,” said CALS communications specialist Ellen Leventry ’95. “But this is part of our land-grant mission; we are here to share really exciting research and discovery with our community.”

And, as land-grant university to the world, Cornell shared the bloom, which on record has only been observed some 140 times in history, globally via two live streams, which received more than 600,000 views. Among many correspondents, a teacher in Georgia sent a photo of her class watching the Cornell live stream and a woman in Scotland wrote in with questions.

Some 53 percent of 2,000 online and paper-ballot voters dubbed the plant “Wee Stinky,” with the name “Uncle Ezra” coming in second with 33 percent of the votes, and “Big Red” third with 14 percent of votes.