IU, Bloomington rally around Wally the corpse flower

“Bloomington loves Wally.”

So read a handmade sign tacked to the window of IU’s Jordan Hall Greenhouse on East Third Street, where a giant, odoriferous corpse flower named after a former IU staffer recently grew to a height of 6 feet 3 inches.

Over 5,000 people came to witness the corpse flower at IU Jordan Hall Greenhouse.

Over 5,000 people came to witness the corpse flower at IU Jordan Hall Greenhouse. Photo by IU Communications.

Scientifically named Amorphophallus titanum, or a titan arum, the enormous bloom unfurled the evening of Friday, July 29, revealing a deep crimson interior for about 36 hours, after which the plant’s leaves drew closed and the spadix — a large stem-like structure — sagged like a balloon after a party.

But during the short period from Friday evening to Sunday morning, Wally drew about 5,000 visitors to the greenhouse, including IU President Michael A. McRobbie. At the height of the bloom, the wait to visit the plant climbed over 90 minutes, with a line snaking through the greenhouse and into the main academic building.

“It’s a pretty impressive number when you add in the people who came on Friday afternoon and the people on Sunday to the crazy crowds on Saturday,” said Jean-François Gout, a research associate in the IU Bloomington Department of Biology, who produced a time-lapse video of the bloom (see below). “I myself saw the line extend to the end of the hallway in Jordan Hall.”

After laying dormant for nine years, the plant grew over 6 feet tall in three weeks.

After nine years, IU’s corpse flower (or “titan arum”) grew over six feet tall in three weeks to produce its first bloom. Photo by IU Communications.

The majority of visitors hailed from Bloomington, but some arrived from farther afield. IU gardener John Leichter reported meeting several “flower groupies” who said they had traveled from New York City, where they recently saw another corpse flower bloom. The Herald-Times also reported visitors from Ohio and Oklahoma.

Many others simply peered through greenhouse windows from the sidewalk, or tuned into the live-stream. IU Collaborative Technologies estimates the live-stream player page was loaded 115,585 times during the bloom, with views reported from 96 different countries.

The size of the corpse flower attracted onlookers; so did the odor: a fetid smell produced by a cluster of small flowers — or “unbranched inflorescence” — at the base of the spadix to attract insect pollinators who normally feed on dead animals.

One visitor to the greenhouse described the smell on Twitter as “between a litterbox and the New York City subway.” The Department of Biology’s Facebook page said the scent was detectable outside the greenhouse on Friday night.

In addition to kicking off a weeklong vigil across Bloomington — with several updates on WFIU, a front page and follow up article in the Herald-Times and multiple reports on television and print news sites in Indianapolis — the IU corpse flower’s impending bloom drew national attention, with references to the flower on National Public Radio, the Wall Street Journal and Smithsonian Magazine.

Jordan Hall Greenhouse Supervisor John Lemon removes pollen from Wally's "splathe" for shopping to the

Jordan Hall Greenhouse Supervisor John Lemon removes pollen through Wally’s “spathe” for shipping to the U.S. Botanic Garden in Washington, D.C., where it will fertilize the corpse flower in bloom at the national greenhouse. Photo by IU Bloomington Department of Biology.

The plant even got an unofficial celebrity endorsement, with actor and comedian Andy Richter posting a link to the livestream to 775,000 followers on Twitter. Two posts about the flower on IU’s Facebook page reached over 150,000 unique users and were shared over 375 times. Many others visited the Department of Biology’s Facebook page for daily updates.

The national attention stemmed in part from the unusually large number of other corpse flowers blooming at the same time around the country. The bloom at the New York Botanical Gardens beat out IU’s flower by a day, opening on Thursday, July 28; another corpse flower at the U.S. Botanic Garden in Washington, D.C., opened Aug. 1.

Beyond similar bloom dates, IU’s plant has an even closer connection with the plant in the nation’s capital: the two could soon produce offspring.

Since corpse flowers bloom so rarely, IU gardeners explain it’s hard to produce new plants, especially since the male and female parts of the plant don’t bloom at the same time, making self-fertilization difficult. The U.S. Botanic Garden’s bloom presented a unique opportunity.

On Aug. 1, IU greenhouse supervisor John Lemon harvested pollen from Wally’s spathe, or outer leaf, cutting a small window in the structure to collect the pale yellow pollen, after which the small motes were shipped via express mail to the national greenhouse.

IU President Michael A. McRobbie, right, examines the flower with Clay Fuqua, chair of the IU Bloomington Department of Biology.

IU President Michael A. McRobbie, right, examines the flower with Clay Fuqua, chair of the IU Bloomington Department of Biology. Photo by IU Bloomington Department of Biology.

Staffers at the Washington, D.C. facility will use the pollen to fertilize their plant. If all goes according to plan, Wally will soon be a proud papa, with some of the seeds from the “union” returning to Bloomington to create Wally Jr.

In addition, IU greenhouse staff are preparing the current plant for the next bloom, which should arrive in three years now that a flower has appeared for the first time. IU gardeners will soon relocate Wally’s “corm” — the basketball-sized, bulb-like structure from which the flower or leaf springs — to a larger pot, which should encourage the next bloom to grow even bigger. In between blooms, the plant also generates a single leaf, which can reach 20 feet tall, that nourishes the corm in order to produce another leaf or bloom.

But Wally’s most lasting legacy may be the awareness raised about the IU Jordan Hall Greenhouse, a unique research facility constructed in the 1950s, which is free and open to the public. Wally’s nickname even highlights the greenhouse’s long history, referring to Hugh “Wally” Scales, who retired in the early 1970s after many years as the chief botanical gardener in the Department of Biology.

To support upgrades to the greenhouse through the unofficially named “Wally Fund,” visit the Biology Enrichment Fund and note “Jordan Hall Greenhouse” in the “In honor of” field.

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