Sylvester and plant

Associate Professor Steve Sylvester stands with “Titan Vancoug,” Washington State University’s Corpse Flower. The rare flower is preparing to bloom on campus after Sylvester started the seed in his office 17 years ago.

Native to the rainforests of the limestone hills of Sumatra, Indonesia, Amorphophallus titanum, known colloquially as a Corpse Flower, smells like death when it blooms. After many years of teasing the public, “Titan Vancoug,” Washington State University’s Corpse Flower, is preparing to bloom. 

“I worry about it pretty much constantly,” Associate Professor and father of the plant Steve Sylvester said after mentioning how vulnerable the blooming process is. “I tried to learn as much as I possibly could about the plant (before it bloomed).” 

Sylvester has been caring for the rare plant since he planted the seed in a small pot in his window after receiving a seed from the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s titan arum plant, named Big Bucky, in 2002. According to Sylvester, in the beginning stages of owning the plant, it grew to be about 12 inches tall (just one leaf) and stopped growing and died.

“At first I was crushed,” Sylvester said. “The information (on the plant) at that time was not as prolific as it is now.” 

Sylvester said that after this death, another sprout came up bigger. This process of growing and dying happened until the plant became too big for his office, then his laboratory, so he took the plant down to the hallway of the building, which came with its own new problem. 

Sylvester explained that since the plant was now visible by more people, it became over-watered due to its natural process of killing off leaves. “They overwatered it,” Sylvester said. “The main shaft, the trunk, exploded and spattered the wall with brown sap and the plant fell over.” 

Because of this explosion, the corm of the plant split causing the plant to clone itself and four leaves to sprout up out of the pot Sylvester had put it in. It is most likely because of this cloning that Titan Vancoug is a late bloomer at 17 years old as most Corpse Flowers bloom after seven to 10 years of growth. With intermittent blooms every four years after the first.

On June 1, Titan Vancoug began to show signs of a bloom and by July 1, the plant had grown to 25.5 inches tall and has grown about two inches a day since. 

The Titan arum is one of the tallest blooming and flowering structures in the world. The plant is the largest single bloom in the world and is typically 6- to -8-feet tall and can produce leaves of up to 20 feet in length. According to Sylvester, if the plant keeps growing at its current rate, it could be on track to break the world record bloom of over 10 feet in height. Blooms outside of its natural habitat are rare, making the Titan Arum a rare event and, according to Sylvester, the only one to ever happen in the Portland-Metro area. 

Sylvester said that he brought the plant to WSU Vancouver as a way to show the public of the campus’ presence in the area and bring people to the campus. 

“When I came here (to WSU Vancouver) in ‘96 it was apparent that the goal of the campus was to grow,” he said, explaining that the ratio of Bachelor’s Degrees to adult population in the Southwest Washington area was low at that time. 

And bringing people to the Vancouver campus it is. Being the only bloom in the Portland-Metro area, people are coming from all over to visit the plant, smell its stink and take a picture with it. The plant is still in the beginning stages of its bloom but is expected to enter the process of its full bloom soon. Sylvester said he’s looking for signs such as a deep purple color to indicate when it will bloom. 

Once the plant opens, it’s a quick and stinky process, it fully blooms within 24 to 48 hours and smells of decaying animals to attract corpse flies and dung beetles for pollination. The flower remains for about four days and then collapses.

Sylvester is in the process of acquiring pollen from New York and Edinburgh so he can produce seeds for the plant to give out for further research on the rare flower.

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