Featured image: Steve Sylvester (right) answers questions about the corpse plant named Titan VanCoug (left) at the University of Washington Vancouver on July 16, 2019.
Photos by Cheryl Landes
Steve Sylvester beamed today like a proud papa as he stood in the tent outside the Science and Engineering building at the University of Washington (WSU) Vancouver and answered questions from a long line of spectators. The Associate Professor of Molecular Biosciences waited for this day for 17 years, when a rare flower he cultivated from a seed finally reached full bloom for the first time.
Steve Sylvester, Associate Professor of Molecular Biosciences at WSU Vancouver
The flower is an Amorphophallus titanium, or titan arum for short. It’s more commonly called a corpse flower or corpse plant. The name comes from its strong aroma, which resembles rotten meat. The aroma attracts insects that eat dead flesh or lay their eggs in rotted meat to pollinate the flower.
Sylvester received the seed from Big Bucky, another corpse flower at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, in 2002. He planted the seed in a pot on his desk. When the plant grew too large to keep in his office, he moved it to a stairwell in the WSU Vancouver Science and Engineering Building.
On June 1 this year, he noticed the first bloom starting to emerge. A month later, the plant had grown to 25.5 inches tall and continued growing two inches every day until its full bloom.
Steve Sylvester admiring Titan VanCoug
He named the plant Titan VanCoug, which I’m guessing is in honor of the cougar mascot at the university (or coug for short).
Titan VanCoug has received a lot of media attention. The local TV stations, newspapers, and ezines have kept watch on the flower’s progress since the hint of a bloom was announced to the public. The university set up a YouTube channel where Titan VanCoug fans and the curious can watch a livestream from the tent.
So, you might wonder: Why all the attention?
Corpse plants are the world’s largest and rarest flowers. They’re native to Indonesia’s rainforests, the only place in the world where they grow naturally.
The plants typically start producing blossoms after seven to 10 years. The blooms usually range from six to eight feet tall, and the leaves can grow from 15 to 20 feet. The plants bloom once every three to five years and have a lifespan of 40 years.
The full blooms don’t last long, either. Typically a corpse plant is in full bloom for 24 to 48 hours. Three to five days later, the spadix (central floral spike) collapses.
A comparison of two corpse flowers: Titan VanCoug in full bloom (left) and a plant two days past full bloom at the Foster Botanical Garden in Honolulu
Today, when I could get a close look at Titan VanCoug, I noticed that a hole about the size of a small smartphone had been cut in the back of the plant near the base. I asked Sylvester about it. He said that he cut the hole this morning to pollinate Titan VanCoug with some pollen he received from the New York Botanical Garden in New York City.
Sylvester also arranged to receive pollen from The Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh, Scotland. His goal is to pollinate Titan VanCoug to produce seeds that he can share with other universities and conservatories.
Corpse plants regulate their heat, so Sylvester keeps track of Titan VanCoug’s temperature. The hotter the plant is, the stronger the rotten meat aroma is to attract insects.
Unlike most plants that flower, bees don’t pollinate corpse plants. Dung beetles, flesh-eating flies, and other carnivorous insects do, which is why the corpse plants emit such a strong odor.
If you want to see Titan VanCoug’s full bloom in person, tomorrow is likely your last chance. Viewing hours are 8 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Friday and 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday-Sunday.
WSU Vancouver is located at 14204 NE Salmon Creek Avenue, east of the 134th Street exit from either I-5 or I-205. Parking is available at meters and in the Blue Daily Pay lot for $4 until 5 p.m. and $2 thereafter until 7 p.m. After 7 p.m. and on weekends, parking is free.
C-Tran also provides bus service to campus. Plan your trip at c-tran.com.
Today when I was there, the university provided free parking in all three lots next to the Science and Engineering Building (orange, green, and blue). I’m not sure whether the same policy applies as long as Titan VanCoug is in full bloom.
Download this map of the WSU Vancouver campus in PDF.
Expect a wait if you go. The line moves quickly, but because it’s long, it might be an hour or two before you see Titan VanCoug. My wait today was an hour and 40 minutes, but it was worth it.