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This flower put on a rare show at UNG. And it smells of ‘everything foul’
corpse flower
The endangered titan arum, also called the corpse flower, bloomed May 7, 2020, at the University of North Georgia's Dahlonega campus. -Photo courtesy University of North Georgia

The corpse flower unleashed its black frills and aroma of feces and rotting flesh May 7 at a Dahlonega greenhouse.

The endangered titan arum, also known as the corpse flower, bloomed at the University of North Georgia in Dahlonega, offering a nearly 5-foot spectacle and pungent odor that permeated beyond the greenhouse and lasted about two days.

“It’s everything foul that you can think of with a little bit of garlic thrown in for good measure,” Ashlee McCaskill, biology professor at UNG, said. “One person who came to visit, said the odor made her so nauseous that she almost passed out.”

McCaskill said the corpse flower is native to Sumatra and can take seven to 10 years to bloom. This rare plant’s spadix, which is the spike that grows from its center, typically reaches between 6 to 8 feet tall. 

McCaskill said personally she added the corpse flower along with several other specimens, to the university’s greenhouse. Despite the rarity of the plant in the wild, she said it was commercially available at a nursery in North Carolina. 

The biology professor named the corpse flower “Carol,” and has spent hours sitting next to it since it bloomed, despite its terrible odor. She said she only names plants that “put on a show.”

Other than incorporating extra peat moss in its soil, McCaskill said corpse flowers are relatively low maintenance. The five in UNG’s greenhouse are watered and fertilized once a week with Miracle-Gro.

When one of those plants bloomed this year, McCaskill was taken by surprise.

“It’s my understanding that in general, it’s pretty unpredictable with blooming,” she said. “I thought it would be a few more years. It’s very unexpected.”

Story continues below.

corpse flower
Ashlee McCaskill, a biology professor at the University of North Georgia, stands beside a 54-inch corpse flower, which only blooms once every seven to 10 years. The 10-year-old plant blossomed on May 7, in a greenhouse on UNG's Dahlonega campus. -Photo courtesy University of North Georgia

For the short amount of time it opens its black frills, the pungent odor attracts carrion beetles and flesh flies, which help pollinate the plant. Both the smell and dark hue mimic rotting flesh that certain insects enjoy.

From McCaskill’s observations, she said the short length of bloom is mostly likely due to the large amount of energy it gathers over seven to 10 years to begin its bloom cycle. 

“My guess is that it would not be that sustainable to keep open,” she said.

The last documented blooming of a corpse flower in Georgia was 20 years ago at the Atlanta Botanical Garden, McCaskill said. 

Because of the pandemic, UNG couldn’t host an in-person viewing of the flower but instead livestreamed the spectacle on May 9.

“I think it went pretty well, considering the weird situation that we’re in,” McCaskill said. “I always planned on having a big viewing party, so people could come see it in real life.”

The black bloom, which is called the spathe, encases tiny flowers that develop into berries if pollination occurs. McCaskill plans to plant the flowers’ seeds and grow more of the endangered species at UNG.

“It was a bucket list plant for me,” McCaskill said. “I’d never seen one in bloom. I was giddy to be able to experience this.”

Catch the blooming of the corpse flower in action on the University of North Georgia's Facebook page here.

See original story from Gainesville Times staff writer Kelsey Podo here.