I could smell it before I saw it.
After being led up a secured elevator and down the hall of a nondescript classroom building on the edge of San Jose State's campus, it became clear we had reached our destination by the small group of people clustered in the doorway and the smell emanating from it.
"Several people just open the door, poke their head in and are like, 'I'm outta here,'" says San Jose State greenhouse manager Lars Rosengreen.
Inside the tropical house, a small greenhouse that replicates the stifling humidity of a tropical island, it's impossible to miss the titan arum, a 7-foot-tall plant known as the corpse flower (and in this case nicknamed Terry Titan). Between the warmth of the room and the blooming flower's odor, which mimics rotting flesh in order to attract insects to pollinate it, the smell evokes various unpleasant connections.
"I have heard people say it smells like a rotting cow, like a feed lot for cattle," Rosengreen says. "To me it has maybe a fishy smell to it also."
This week marked the first time a corpse flower has ever bloomed in San Jose and may be a first for Silicon Valley as a whole, according to local media reports. The endangered plant is native to western Sumatra, and fewer than 1,000 still exist in the wild, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The population of corpse flowers has declined more than 50% over the past 150 years due to logging and the conversion of the plant's native habitat to oil palm plantations.
In the United States, corpse flower seedlings have wound up in the hands of conservatories and universities like San Jose State, which see the plant as a valuable instructional tool and view their role in cultivating them as a means toward helping the endangered plant return to a healthy state in the wild. (Oddly enough, UC Riverside and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo just saw their corpse flowers bloom, and UC Santa Cruz's arboretum and botanic garden just saw its corpse flower bloom overnight Monday after initially declaring it unlikely to bloom July 30.)
"It's great for people to learn a little bit more about the natural world, especially something so extreme," Rosengreen says.
Corpse flowers can live at least a decade or more in captivity, but they usually take five to 10 years to bloom, meaning a plant may only bloom a few times in its life. And when it does, the bloom is short-lived: The flower typically collapses after 24-36 hours. The plant only produces its notorious stench when it blooms.
Corpse flower blooms are identified after a bud forms when the plant has been dormant for some months and it becomes clear that it's a flower bud and not a leaf. The pointy spadix, a tall spike of tiny flowers, rises from the center of the flowering plant and self-generates heat. The spadix also produces the chemical compounds that cause the flower's odor, including compounds that are partly responsible for the smell of sweaty feet and rotten fish.
That smell is no accident: It's designed to attract beetles and insects that would normally lay their eggs or feed on something that's dead, which in turn helps pollinate the plant. Other insects also feed on the beetles and flies that show up, and bees come to collect pollen. After six to 12 months, cherry-sized fruit containing seeds will form, attracting animals that eat the fruit and spread its seeds.
While Rosengreen says someone could grow a corpse flower in their home if they wanted to — "you've got to keep it warm and eventually it's going to outgrow your house," he says — cultivating the rare plant in San Jose takes a delicate balance of climate and humidity control, as well as the help of trained students who help care for the university's greenhouse collections. The soil has to have a lot of aeration to prevent rotting, and the greenhouse's temperature must be above 65 degrees at all times.
San Jose State got its corpse flower as a 6-inch seedling from a specialty nursery in Sebastopol about eight years ago.
"The big reason for having it is it's a wonderful instructional tool," Rosengreen says. "As an institution, figuring out how to grow these plants is really useful if at some point we want to get these plants back in a healthy state in the wild."
When the bloom is over and the flower begins to deflate, staff from San Jose State's biology department will aim to do something that's only been achieved once before: dry and preserve the corpse flower. Using an 8 foot by 4 foot plant press, staff will try to harvest, dry and press the plant so it can be used for instruction and research.
"Another really cool thing about growing plants like this is you can pass on knowledge to the next generation," Rosengreen says. "I personally really enjoy that part."
Julia Brown writes for TheSixFifty.com, a sister publication of Palo Alto Online, covering what to eat, see and do in Silicon Valley.