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After 11 years, rare corpse flower ready to bloom in Costa Mesa

The corpse flower is named for the pungent stench it emits as it tries to attract insects for pollination
A smaller corpse flower attracted throngs of curious visitors when it bloomed in San Marino in 2010

For 11 years, the horticulture department at Orange Coast College has been dutifully cultivating a large, nearly 5-foot-tall plant indigenous to Sumatra that only now is blooming for the first time.

The payoff? A giant flower that, for roughly 36 hours, emits a pungent stench akin to that of rotting flesh.

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

The titan arum produces the stink as it tries to attract insects to pollinate the male and female flowers it holds deep inside a pod. But the rarity of the plant — and its bloom — makes the stench worth it to horticulturists, few of whom can claim the achievement of growing one.

A smaller corpse flower measuring 3 feet 8 inches tall attracted throngs of curious visitors when it bloomed at the Huntington Botanical Gardens in San Marino in 2010.

"It's not an easy thing to grow," said Rick Harlow, who heads Orange Coast College's horticulture department. "You have to be committed to it."

As the 4- to 5-foot-tall specimen prepares to have its inaugural bloom, Harlow and his staff at the Costa Mesa campus have already had a whiff of what's to come.

"We smelled something for the first time," he said. "To me, it smelled like rotten eggs."

A live-stream video focused on the flower — named Little John — showed the bloom starting to unfold Tuesday, indicating that the rare event is near.

Although the horticulture department doesn't know exactly when the corpse flower will fully open, when it does, staffers will have only a 24- to 48-hour window to pollinate it. The college plans to freeze some of the pollen gathered from the fussy plant to use years down the road for future titan arum blooms.

For those who want to sniff out nature's rendition of rotting flesh for themselves, the plant has been on display since Thursday, and will remain so until the bloom fully opens.

jeremiah.dobruck2@latimes.com

Twitter: @jeremiahdobruck

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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