UW News

August 18, 2016

Follow your nose: UW’s young corpse flower relocates to Volunteer Park Conservatory for fetid first bloom

UW News

Scientists pose with a corpse plant.

UW’s Dougsley poses with friends before settling in at the Volunteer Park Conservatory.UW Biology

Visitors to Seattle’s Volunteer Park Conservatory are in for a stinking treat, courtesy of the Department of Biology at the University of Washington. The conservatory has taken in a young corpse lily while the university awaits the 2018 opening of a new greenhouse facility in the Life Sciences Complex. The young plant, affectionately known as Dougsley, is set to blossom this week or next. Releasing its stench the first night after opening, the foul scent will dissipate in subsequent days until the flower fades.

Also known as the titan arum, corpse lilies are aptly named. Native to Sumatra, their open flowers give off an odor not unlike rotting carrion. For the 12 to 24 hours that the flower remains open, this fetid fragrance recruits flies and beetles to pollinate the flower ensuring the production of the next generation. The flower also generates heat to help spread the volatile chemicals that make up their signature stinking stench. One plant produces both male and female flowers, which mature at separate times to prevent self-pollination.

Corpse lilies boast the largest unbranched inflorescence — or flowering stem — of all flowering plants. Before opening, a single inflorescence can reach a height of nearly 10 feet. But corpse lilies must grow large enough to bloom as flowering takes a lot of energy, so plants can wait up to a decade before blooming. As of press time, young Dougsley’s inaugural inflorescence stands at just over 23 inches and growing.

Corpse flower

Dougsley arrives at the Volunteer Park Conservatory.UW Biology

Dougsley takes its name from Doug Ewing, who managed the former greenhouse next to Kincaid Hall for 31 years before retiring in 2014. Ewing first brought corpse lilies to the greenhouse in the 1990s, and the UW’s first corpse flower opened in 1999. In 2004 two different corpse lilies bloomed at the same time, allowing Ewing to remove pollen from one plant — grown from a wild seed — and pollinate the flower of the other plant — grown from seed obtained from a German botanic garden. Dougsley is the first plant from that pairing to become sufficiently mature to bloom.

The Life Sciences Complex is going up on the former site of the UW’s greenhouse, demolished earlier this year so construction could begin. Amazon.com is generously hosting the bulk of the greenhouse’s bounty until the new facility is ready.

For updates on Dougsley’s progress toward an evening bloom — its preferred time of the day to open — check the Volunteer Park Conservatory’s website.