After 11-year wait, rare corpse flower set to bloom in Costa Mesa

After 11-year wait, rare corpse flower set to bloom in Costa Mesa
People gather around to observe the first rare bloom of a titan arum, also known as the corpse flower, at Orange Coast College's horticulture department on Saturday. (Don Leach / Daily Pilot)

For 11 years, the horticulture department at Orange Coast College has been dutifully cultivating a large plant indigenous to Sumatra.

The payoff: A huge flower with an extremely pungent smell -- but it's a less-than-pleasant one.


They don't call it the corpse flower for nothing.

The rare titan arum is so named for the horrendous stench it emits as it tries to attract insects to pollinate the male and female flowers it holds deep inside a pod.

And after 11 years of cultivation, the 4- to 5-foot-tall specimen is about to have its inaugural bloom.

"We smelled something for the first time," Rick Harlow, who heads the horticulture department at Orange Coast College, told the Daily Pilot.

Named Little John, the flower was still closed as of Monday, but the light scent seeping out indicated the smelly event is close.

Harlow and his colleagues were able to catch a whiff by examining the prehistoric-looking plant up close. They stuck their noses near fleshy leaves closed around a single protrusion sticking into the air like a thick green tongue.

"To me it smelled like rotten eggs," Harlow said.

The horticulture department doesn't know exactly when the corpse flower will open, but when it does, they'll have only a 24- to 48-hour window to pollinate it.

"It's on its own timeline," Harlow said.

The plant has been on display since Thursday in anticipation of the bloom, and will remain so until it happens.

The college will use pollen gathered from that plant and freeze the pollen they collect from this bloom to use years down the road.

The corpse flowers are so rare partly because they thrive only in jungle conditions like ones found in their native Sumatra, Harlow said.

"It's not an easy thing to grow," Harlow said. "You have to be committed to it."

Jeremiah Dobruck is a Times Community News staff writer.