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June 25, 2014

Smell of success

June 25, 2014

Sniff…take a deep breath. Campus is finally in full bloom—you can smell it in the air. Roses in the garden, wet dew on a summer morning, cut grass in the fields, flowering trees in the woodlots, waffle cones in the Dairy Store, sunscreen at the pool and, wait, what’s that? Death? Rotting meat? Stinky cheese mixed with dirty socks.

If that’s the case, then you must be in MSU’s plant biology greenhouse. This week the greenhouse at Wilson and Farm Lane has been home to something more rare than a teenager up before noon on summer vacation and a whole lot stinkier—the corpse flower.

Its technical name is the Amorphophallus titanum and its native habitat is Indonesia, but MSU is home to one of these smelly flowers. The plants rarely bloom, going years, even decades between showings. (Honestly, how often would you want to go out if all anyone talked about was how awful you smelled?) According to MSU’s experts, only a handful of these giant flowers bloom outside their native habitat in any given decade.

And yet, there it was—in all its malodorous glory. I hurried up to take my family to check it out since once it blooms it only lasts 24 to 48 hours. (Again, how long would you stick around if everyone who got near you gagged and held their noses?) It’s a huge plant, towering over visitors who were eager to take a sniff, snap a selfie and then head outside for some fresh air.

Despite its stench, MSU’s flower became an instant celebrity. News crews did live broadcasts, social media exploded, reporters around the country covered the event and a line snaked around the building with visitors waiting up to 2 hours to get a good whiff.

In just a few days, more than 3,000 visitors (some from as far away as Chicago) stopped in to get their noses up close to the fragrant bouquet. Read more about it and see some photos in the MSUToday story, Corpse Flower’s Stench Graces MSU.

Perhaps no one was more excited about the blooming than MSU’s plant biologists. Anytime one of these beauties blooms, it’s a big deal in the field. MSU’s plant had bloomed just four years ago, making it even more of an interesting phenomenon.

Peter Carrington, who is an assistant instructor in the plant biology department and an expert in edible and toxic plants, was practically giddy each time he came into our office to update us on the progress of the blooming. He just missed the last time it bloomed, but not this time. Read his FACULTY VOICE: A Rare and Spectacular Event, to get his perspective.

For a completely different look at the flower than all the selfies you might have seen on Instagram, check out the GLIMPSE our photographer Kurt Stepnitz shot of an up-close view of pollination of the plant.

After making its spectacular appearance, it looks like the plant is on it’s decline and the stench of death will soon be gone from the greenhouse.

Katy Meyers, a graduate student studying archaeology, hasn’t been smelling death lately, but she’s certainly been studying it. Her academic interests are in mortuary and bioarchaeology, with a specific interest in connecting the physical remains to the mortuary context. This month she spent time in England studying bones abroad and conducting research for her dissertation. Check out her STUDENT VIEW: Bones Abroad, to learn more about her work.

Death may be inevitable, but sometimes the smell of it can make a campus greenhouse come alive or the study of it can become someone’s life work. It’s all about perspective.

Spartans Will.


Lisa Mulcrone
Editor, MSUToday


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