It smells like rotting flesh: Indiana University's corpse flower will bloom soon

Follow the smell of rotting flesh.

Past the prickly leaves of the pineapple plants and the tall stalks of papyrus. Toward the southeast corner of the greenhouse. Into the humid air, sagging with the stench.

Wally is about to bloom. 

IU's corpse flower, Wally, currently stands at over 6 feet tall Monday, June 26, 2023. It will keep growing until it completes its bloom.
IU's corpse flower, Wally, currently stands at over 6 feet tall Monday, June 26, 2023. It will keep growing until it completes its bloom.

The bloom of a corpse flower like Wally is quite the event. It comes once every few years and lasts a mere two days. The plants surrounding Wally are blooming, too. One, a banana tree, holds tightly to still-green fruit. Another is swollen with clusters of papayas.

Between them sits a plant towering over 6 feet tall. Rising from a round swath of green leaves is its spadix, a large, gray-purple spire. Soon, maybe Wednesday or Thursday, the leaves — the part of the flower known as its spathe — will unfurl. It happens overnight, and visitors in the morning will see the deep crimson of Wally’s outstretched petals.

The Indiana University Biology Building Greenhouse is home to Indiana’s only known corpse flower, said greenhouse workers. It last bloomed in December 2020 and is expected to complete its current bloom by the end of this week. The plant is named for the greenhouse’s first manager, Hugh Wallace “Wally” Scales.

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Corpse flower 'Wally' starts blooming

The corpse flower, known scientifically as Amorphophallus titanum or the titan arum, is a native of the rainforests of western Sumatra. Greg Speichert, former director of Hilltop Garden and Nature Center, donated Wally to the greenhouse in 2007.

But it lay dormant for nearly 10 years, blooming for the first time in July 2016.

The greenhouse’s acting supervisor, John Leichter, has witnessed both of Wally’s previous blooms. Some corpse flowers bloom every two years. For others, it takes decades.

“We’ve gotten lucky,” Leichter said.

Informative posters are set up throughout the greenhouse. Corpse flowers are rare, and their life cycles are unusual.
Informative posters are set up throughout the greenhouse. Corpse flowers are rare, and their life cycles are unusual.

The plant grows from a corm, which is an underground stem that stores food. When the plant has gathered enough energy, it blooms. It'll flower every few years. But there's a catch: While in bloom, the flower emits a pungent odor that has been described as rotting flesh, sweaty socks and feces.

It takes a lot of energy to produce the smell. Reaching up to 100 degrees Fahrenheit, the spadix vaporizes its stench, attracting carrion-eating beetles. The beetles then pollinate the plant. Afterward, the flower collapses, and the process will repeat in about three years.

Because they’re endangered species and their blooms are so rare, corpse flowers draw crowds. There are others in St. Louis, Chicago and Cincinnati, Leichter said. Just last Saturday, more than 200 people passed through the IU greenhouse to gaze at Wally.

A sign in the IU Biology Building Greenhouse points visitors toward Wally. On Saturday, over 200 guests came to see the corpse flower.
A sign in the IU Biology Building Greenhouse points visitors toward Wally. On Saturday, over 200 guests came to see the corpse flower.

Corpse flower's bloom draws crowds

In one weekend, Wally’s 2016 bloom attracted 5,000 visitors, according to an IU Science at Work article.

Leichter said he knew people would be invested in Wally’s growth. But the greenhouse is now short-staffed. He didn’t know if they’d be equipped to handle so much traffic again.

“I wondered if we should even tell the public,” Leicester said. “But this is too spectacular.”

Visitor Wylan Hill reads an infographic in front of Wally's base Monday, June 26. The signs teach viewers about the life cycle and history of the corpse flower.
Visitor Wylan Hill reads an infographic in front of Wally's base Monday, June 26. The signs teach viewers about the life cycle and history of the corpse flower.

There isn’t much time left before Wally’s bloom is at its peak. There’s a narrow window to visit the corpse flower. Stay updated by tracking Wally’s progress from the greenhouse Facebook page.

Visitors can enter the greenhouse through room 139 on the first floor of the Biology Building at 1001 E. Third St. You’ll know you're in the right place when you get a whiff of Wally.

This article originally appeared on The Herald-Times: Indiana University's rare corpse flower 'Wally' prepares to bloom