Miava Reem of the greenhouse at Knox College, moves a "devil's tongue" plant from the building to the steps outside Tuesday afternoon. The plant is a relative to and has an odor similar to the "corpse plant."

Rare plant packs odor

Tropical devil's tongue plants smell like rotting flesh

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

A towering tropical plant whose deep-purple blossoms reek of rotting flesh stunk up a corner of the Knox College campus this week and has sprouted a tale about the rare plant's roots in Galesburg.

About 25 years ago, now-retired physician Ray Thompson received a small bulb from his neighbor, a nurse who lived next door.

The gift was an offshoot from a larger bulb of a species indigenous to southeast Asia that Thompson always believed was a corpse flower, so named because the plants emit the scent of dead animals to attract insects that will aid in pollination.

Thompson, who has lost touch with the woman who gave him the bulb, dug it up every fall, stored it in his garage during colder months and replanted it in the spring.

Most years, the plant only grew foliage and looked like a small palm tree, Thompson said.


Reem reacts after smelling a "devil's tongue" plant outside the building Tuesday afternoon. When in bloom the plant puts out a strong odor.
Kent Kriegshauser

But every five or six years, the plant has produced a large, purple bloom with a very distinctive odor. This year was just the fourth time in 25 years Thompson's plant has produced the bloom - and the scent.

"Some people say it smells like rotten eggs or sulphur or decaying flesh," said Thompson, who donated the plant to the greenhouse at Knox College on Monday. "I thought it would be nice to share it with someone who could keep it alive."

Plant stinks, but a good find for Knox College

Miava Reem of the Knox College greenhouse believes the plant is a devil's tongue, which is related to but smaller and more common than the corpse flower. Both species belong to the genus amorphophallus and are among a number of plants known for their carcass-like stenches.

"It smells like a suitcase full of dead mice," Reem said of Thompson's plant, which stands about five feet six inches tall.

After receiving the plant on Monday, Reem first displayed it in the college's science building, but moved it outside after its odor, described by one faculty member as reminiscent of roadkill, spread through the halls.

Within days, the bloom will fall off and the stench will dissipate. It might be years before it blooms again, Reem said.

The Lincoln Park Conservatory in Chicago also has a devil's tongue, which bloomed last month. While not as rare as a true corpse flower, the plant is among the more rare species now found in Knox College's horticulture collection.

"I've been hanging out in this greenhouse for 14 years and the only amorphophallus I've ever seen has been in pictures. I never dreamed that one was going to drop into my lap on a Monday morning," Reem said.

Bulbs bought and grown in Galesburg over the years

Thompson doesn't know why his neighbor was growing the exotic plant years ago or where she got the bulb.

But he and his wife, Grace, gave an offshoot of their bulb to their friend Ruth Burger of Galesburg five years ago. She, too, has dug it up every fall and replants it in the spring, when it usually grows into foliage.

Burger's plant is blooming this year for the first time. It's now two and a half feet tall but has yet to send out its telltale odor, which is fine with Burger, after getting a whiff of the Thompsons' plant earlier this week.

"It's like nothing I've ever smelled before and it's nothing I would ever care to smell again," Burger said.

But the plant's roots in Galesburg appear to be deeper than Reem, Thompson or Burger have imagined.

Martha Smith, a horticulture educator with the University of Illinois Extension in Macomb, said no one, to her knowledge, has ever reported a blooming amorphophallus in the 16 counties of the state she covers.

"We're talking about a genus of plants that grows in other parts of the world," she said.

Smith started growing her own amorphophallus last summer - from a bulb she bought in Galesburg.

Tropical plants a family tradition

Bill McVey calls them African lilies.

It's not the common or accurate name of the tropical plants that crowd his backyard and drive his wife crazy with a scent he describes as "worse than rotten potatoes."

But it's what his grandmother, Mary Austin Weinberg, always called the exotic species she grew in her Galesburg yard.

"Everybody calls them something," McVey said.

When Weinberg died in the 1990s, McVey saved two bulbs he believes her father, a Swedish immigrant, first brought to Knox County generations ago.

Those two bulbs - now nearly the size of basketballs - may be the root of the existence of what's believed to be devil's tongue in Galesburg. As they produced smaller bulbs, Weinberg gave them away to friends and family.

"She never gave away very many because she never had very many," said McVey, owner of The Greenhouse on East Main Street where Smith bought her amorphophallus bulb last summer.

For the past three years, McVey has been selling the bulbs in his store, sending 10 or 12 home with customers per year. Customers from as far away as Florida have bought the bulbs.

"Everybody who has ever seen it says they're extra rare," McVey said. "People see them and are amazed that we have them."

At home, his grandmother's plants bloom almost every year, growing several inches a day in the spring to reach heights of more than eight feet.

Over the years, he has grown dozens of additional plants with smaller offshoot bulbs, but he's still not accustomed to the smell.

"Oh, it's bad. It's really bad. It's like something crawled up there and died," he said.

He and his wife, Margie, sometimes tie plastic bags around the blooms to minimize the odor. Their yard is so overrun with the plants they left some of them in the ground this winter.

But the perpetuation of the species in Galesburg is a source of personal pride for McVey.

"Our family always had the only ones of them in the area," he said.


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