Updated: 12:45 p.m. May 6, 2016.
One of the Phipps Conservatory’s most popular and pungent flowers is gearing up to bloom again this year.
The corpse flower is named “Romero” in honor of George Romero, Pittsburgh’s auteur of such zombie camp films as Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead. While no one’s sure precisely what a zombie smells like, it’s theorized that the corpse flower’s mix of rotting flesh, sweaty socks, human feces and sweet florals comes pretty close.
The flower last bloomed in 2013, and horticulturalist Laura Schoch said it’s unusual to see a corpse flower bloom again so quickly.
“Our Romero has a little bit of an ego I guess,” she said.
Phipps staff knew the flower would bloom again this year based on the shape of its growth. Every spring for three to 10 years, a corpse flower will grow into what looks like a small tree, with a bright green, spotted stem and a canopy of leaves – which is actually just one leaf with leaflets, said Schoch. It takes so much effort to produce blooms that the plant must gather energy through photosynthesis and store it in its underground bulb-like structure, called a corm, for several years before it is ready to bloom.
In the winter, the leaves rot away and Phipps staff cuts the stem down to the corm, waiting to see what shape emerges in the spring.
Schoch said this year, Romero grew into a light brown phallus shape, indicating it would bloom again. (The flower’s scientific name is amorphophallus titanium, ancient Greek for “giant misshapen phallus.”)
“When it goes into this flowering stage, it starts to grow a rapid rate until it reaches a certain size, right before it blooms,” she said.
Romero has grown about 4 inches a day for the past several days; when growth begins to slow to approximately 1 inch per day it means the flower is about to bloom.
The corpse flower blooms in two phases. The female buds, which live at the bottom of the central phallic protrusion, bloom first for about 12 hours. Then they close up and the male buds bloom for another 12 hours. All told, the blooming cycle lasts only 24-48 hours; a short time window, but long enough to attract the insects that will pollinate it and other plants and propagate the species.
“It stinks because it needs to gather from the forest the beetles and flies that actually bring pollen from other ones to fertilize the female flowers, hang in there for a day, get the male pollen that comes in the second phase, and go off and find another female in the forest,” Schoch said.
When that happens, staff will monitor the flower closely and will send out calls on social media for people to come to the conservatory and check out the rare blooms. Phipps officials said Romero will likely bloom in the next few days and the conservatory has extended its hours, staying open until midnight.
In 2013, 12,000 people came to get a whiff of Romero’s stench. Schoch said the call went out at around 5 p.m. and it was 2 a.m. before everyone in line got their chance to see the flower.
“It also generates a lot of interest in other plants too, so it’s really nice to see a lot of people in here,” Schoch said. “Maybe this is the first time they’ve been here, so it’s great to see people come and see what else we have to offer.”
You can follow Romero’s growth on its very own Twitter feed.
— Romero at Phipps (@RomeroatPhipps) June 4, 2016