It's Really Big and Really Stinks But People Can't Wait to See S.F.'s Corpse Flower

On June 12, 2017, Sidney Price visits Terra the Titan, a corpse flower that used to live in his bathroom and now resides at the San Francisco Conservatory of Flowers. (Patricia Yollin/KQED)

Update, 5:40 p.m. Thursday, June 15:

The San Francisco Conservatory of Flowers issued a "Stink Alert" late Thursday afternoon about its corpse flower, which has been on the verge of blooming for days: Terra the Titan has started to open. It might not totally unfurl this evening, but its stench -- which has been likened to rotting flesh -- will be the strongest tonight.

The conservatory will be open until 9 p.m., with the last entry at 8:30 p.m, to accommodate visitors to Terra, and will reopen at 10 a.m. Friday.

"It's happening," said its Facebook post. "Smell you soon."

The plant will reek for only a few days, but its collapse will also be something to see.

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Original post, June 13:

There is no prouder parent than Sidney Price. On Monday morning, he savored a private visit with his "baby" at the San Francisco Conservatory of Flowers.

"I always thought she'd be an early bloomer," said Price, as he gazed at Terra the Titan, a 9-year-old corpse flower poised to unleash an overpowering stench that has been compared to decaying animal flesh, filthy socks, rotting garbage and human feces.

But it doesn't repel people. Quite the contrary. When a corpse flower blooms, it is always a botanical blockbuster, drawing thousands of people who can't get enough of its putrid smell and unearthly beauty. The last time this rare event occurred at the conservatory was in 2005, drawing about 16,000 visitors in four days.

The largest unbranched inflorescence -- or flowering structure -- in the plant world, the corpse flower is also known as an Amorphophallus titanum (giant misshapen penis) or Titan Arum. When one bloomed at the UC Botanical Garden in Berkeley in 2010, Price witnessed the phenomenon at its olfactory peak, which is usually no more than 48 hours.

"It was love at first sight," recalled Price. "I'd never seen something so beautiful and that smelled so much. It was huuuuuge, as our president would say."

The odor reminded him of roadkill. "It smelled like dead possum," Price said. "It was pretty pungent and intense. I grew up in Arkansas, so I know what dead possum smells like."

Even though he lives in a small apartment in San Francisco's Mission District, Price had to have a corpse flower of his own. He bought a pot with two small plants at the shop in the botanical garden. The sprouts, the offspring of Trudy and Titania, had been propagated at UC a year and a half earlier.

"They were sickly-looking, spindly and yellowish," said the 64-year-old Price, a retired IT worker. "But I wanted one because they're getting destroyed in their native habitat in Indonesia."

He placed them in his kitchen window, but the northern exposure wasn't kind. Two months later, Price moved them to his bathroom, where bright sunlight transformed them from wimps into amazons, and a third sibling emerged.

The shower mist didn't hurt either. "I'm very clean," Price said. "I take a shower in the morning and another in the evening."

The plants' rampant growth began to resemble something out of a science-fiction movie. Price was thrilled but stunned, as he watched Terra overtake his bathroom. He also fretted about the consequences of an untimely bloom.

"I was worried I'd be away on a trip and somebody would call the police and tear down my door because they thought a dead body was inside," he said.

Finally, when one of the gigantic leaves reached 7 feet, he realized it was time to say goodbye. One day in 2014, he called the Conservatory of Flowers. Three years later, Terra is poised to become its first permanent corpse flower to bloom -- its 2005 predecessor was borrowed from UC Davis.

Visitors take advantage of a rare open Monday at the San Francisco Conservatory of Flowers on June 12, 2017.
Visitors take advantage of a rare open Monday at the San Francisco Conservatory of Flowers on June 12, 2017. (Patricia Yollin/KQED)

When Price visited Terra on Monday, he noted that he's 5-foot-8 and the plant's phalluslike spadix is just under 6 feet, and rising. He still can't believe it.

"I mothered this plant," he said. "I just wanted it to survive so badly."

Price knows a thing or two about survival. The Ozark Mountains native moved to San Francisco in 1975 during its gay heyday -- "Harvey Milk even hit on me" -- and retired in 1996 when he was diagnosed with AIDS. But his timing was good: A new class of drugs kept him alive.

"It was like all the conditions came together for my survival," he said. "And later, for the plants."

Although Price refers to Terra as a she, he's well aware that the plant is a hermaphrodite, with male and female flowers. "It's perfect for gay pride month," he said.

Terra produced its first-ever bud on May 1, and is growing 1 to 3 inches a day. The flowers reside out of sight in the base of the spadix, which looks like a baguette and is encircled by a spathe that resembles a ruffled, pleated skirt and will turn the color of red meat when it unfurls. The odor and color lure pollinators in the form of carrion beetles and flies.

"It's total deception on the plant's part," said Lizzie Roeble, education coordinator at the conservatory. "We are ecstatic. We can't talk or think about anything else."

Janet Spellmann, a nursery specialist at the conservatory, helped relocate Price's plants from their bathroom habitat to their tropical oasis in the Richmond district, where Terra is about to attain superstar status. "Now it needs to be wet all the time," she said.

Within days, or even hours, it will likely bloom, but Titan Arums are "notoriously unpredictable," according to Roeble. Terra's celebrity will be short-lived -- just a few days -- before it goes limp and collapses into total anonymity.

The Titan Arum plants that Sidney Price purchased as sprouts eventually outgrew the bathroom of his Mission District apartment.
The Titan Arum plants that Sidney Price purchased as sprouts eventually outgrew the bathroom of his Mission District apartment. (Sidney Price)

Titan Arums grow on the hillsides of Sumatran rainforests, and "corpse flower" is the translation of its Indonesian name, bunga bangkai. They're vulnerable because their habitats are being wiped out by agricultural production and timber logging.

"It makes me incredibly sad," Price said.

Roeble agreed. She hopes that the hordes who descend on Terra will learn a bit about the plight of its relatives in the wild, as they sniff and marvel and recoil and take selfies.

The conservatory is extending its hours for Terra's coming-out party. It is usually closed on Mondays, but it opened at noon on June 12 so that people could visit the Titan Arum as it inched ever closer to blooming. The plant's progress will be charted with regular updates on Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and Twitter.

Soon after the doors opened Monday, Terra was holding court.

"It's the only thing that's smellier than me," said Tom Calder, a swimming-pool retiler from Australia. "She's just a prize."

"This is as good as April the Giraffe," declared another patron, referring to the ruminant that gave birth earlier this year as the world watched on YouTube.

Matt McAndrews, a marketer from Philadelphia in town for a few days, heard about Terra from a friend and raced over to the conservatory.

"I like plants but there's nothing like this," he said. "It's pod people. It's body snatchers."

One woman seemed to think the entire pollination process would be on display. Docent Joan Simmons disabused her of that notion.

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"We try not to have carrion flies in here," Simmons explained.

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