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Stateside Podcast: The brief and stinky bloom of a corpse flower

a corpse flower in stages of blooming sits on the right side of the frame in front of a lot of green plants
April Baer
Michigan Public

The first thing that you’ll notice about Kevin Hauser’s home greenhouse is the stench – a smell that sits somewhere between the gym locker room and rotting flesh. The second thing you’ll notice is the culprit: a six-year-old corpse flower (Amorphophallus titanum) lovingly referred to as “Corpsy.”

This week, Corpsy bloomed for the first time. And she wilted as fast as she unfurled – in a matter of hours – releasing a putrid pungence all along.

In their native Sumatra, corpse flowers give off this stench to attract pollinators like carrion beetles and flies to help them reproduce. But this particular plant – located in Hauser’s Dexter home – drew more humans than insects. The plant is a marvel for its brief, beautiful, giant, stinky bloom.

Corpse flowers are considered endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). IUCN estimates that there are fewer than 1,000 mature plants that remain in the wild in Sumatra and notes that this is largely due to logging, fires, and the conversion of land to oil palm and timber plantations.

Leading up to Corpsy’s bloom, Hauser said that noticed the base of the plant beginning to taper almost like a pregnant belly. He was prepared, monitoring Corpsy over a camera when he left the house.

“I had a dentist appointment, so I checked on her just before I left and I could tell she was going to bloom. So I'm at the dentist the whole time, like, holding my phone up, getting a cleaning, you know, watching her open,” Hauser said.

Hauser said once Corpsy was near full bloom, the strength of her carrion odor drew flies through an open window, and a swath of turkey vultures that circled over the house. The stink is all part of the corpse flower’s natural design to attract potential pollinators.

Hauser said that corpse flowers are robust and can tolerate lower temperatures found in their natural environment. But his conservatory mimics Sumatra’s humidity through temperature control and a misting system, which, he said, keeps Corpsy happy.

“She's in fact a very young titanium to be blooming,” Hauser said. “It's roughly six and a half, seven years old. … In cases where they do record the age of the plant, I haven't seen any less than seven years old.”

Programs at places like the United States Botanic Garden and the Chicago Botanic Garden work toward preserving the plant. But with a bloom cycle of about 36 hours every 7 years, witnessing and smelling a corpse flower bloom is rare. That’s why so many people flocked to Hauser’s home.

“It was sort of very poignant, kind of bittersweet because we knew that very shortly she was going to decline and go back to sleep,” Hauser reflected.

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Laura is Executive Producer of Stateside. She came to Michigan Public from WDET in Detroit, where she was senior producer on the current events program, Detroit Today.
Rachel Ishikawa joined Michigan Public in 2020 as a podcast producer. She produced Kids These Days, a limited-run series that launched in the summer of 2020.