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Crosscurrents is our award-winning radio news magazine, broadcasting Mondays through Thursdays at 11 a.m. on 91.7 FM. We make joyful, informative stories that engage people across the economic, social, and cultural divides in our community. Listen to full episodes at kalw.org/crosscurrents

When a San Francisco corpse flower blooms — what happens next?

Mirage in full bloom at the California Academy of Sciences on Wednesday morning
Wren Farrell
Mirage in full bloom at the California Academy of Sciences on Wednesday morning

When I walked into the California Academy of Science’s — my timing was impeccable — Mirage had just started to bloom.

“Hi. Oh my gosh. I know. In the last 30 minutes, just started blooming. Yeah. So we’re here with the corpse flower, yes.”

This is Kyra Ortiz, she’s a biologist here, and her enthusiasm was infectious. She says this is the first time the corpse flower — lovingly named Mirage — has bloomed in 10 years.

“I'm standing here and I've been standing here for the last 30 minutes, kind of watching it, uh, bloom.”

On Tuesday afternoon, Mirage's leaves were still slowly unfurling
Wren Farrell
On Tuesday afternoon, Mirage's leaves were still slowly unfurling

The sense of excitement and awe in the room was palpable. Standing nearby — mouths open — was a woman and her grandson:

“Sherry and Carson.”

They live in the Central Valley. They'd driven up the night before, for a 24-hour trip, hoping and praying that Mirage would bloom while they were in town.

“Came to see Mirage.” 

“This is the whole reason we came.” 

“Yeah. Mm-Hmm. We came to see Mirage.”

“You gotta see it. It's on my bucket list. When you're-when you're almost 70, you wanna see—”

If you drew a picture of a flower, Mirage is not what you would come up with. Corpse flowers are kind of weird looking.

“I mean, you know, it's mother nature. What? You think it's gonna put on lipstick and perfume and come out to show you what it looks like? No. This is what it is in all its glory. It's just magical, I think.”

Magical is certainly one way to describe Mirage. It doesn’t look like any plant I’ve ever seen in the wild, it’s almost prehistoric.

Corpse flowers can grow as tall as twelve feet. They have cabbage-like leaves — called a spathe — wrapped around a long stem in the center — called a spadix. Normally the stem is yellow, but Mirage’s is a deep purple.

“Uh, I don't know. My first impression of it…” 

This is Guillermo Hayes, he works here. It’s his first time ever seeing a corpse flower.

“It looks like when a dog is in heat, the red rocket. But besides that, I mean a tulip? I'm not really good with flowers. I'm saying maybe it might look like a tulip, but it's like a red rocket… yeah.”

He’s not wrong.

A close up on Mirage's spadix — biologists say the rich purple color is rare in corpse flowers
Wren Farrell
A close up on Mirage's spadix — biologists say the rich purple is rare in corpse flowers, and may be a sign of inbreeding

Scientists think that Mirage’s stem might be purple because of inbreeding. Inbreeding is one of the unfortunate results of these plants being endangered. Habitat loss, mostly caused by palm oil production, means that there are less than 1000 of them left in the wild. They’re only native to one place: Western Sumatra, an island of Indonesia. And they’re “thermogenic,” meaning they create their own heat. Here’s biologist Kyra Ortiz again.

“So it can reach almost a hundred degrees Fahrenheit and that will help perpetuate the smell. That's how it's able to release its essence high up into the canopy, miles away to attract all of those pollinators.” 

Their “essence” is what makes them unique. In order to attract insects, corpse flowers mimic the smell of a precise state of decomposition — not too fresh, but not too rotten. That’s what Mirage is doing right now. Again, Ortiz.

As it starts opening, I've been noticing more and more little flies. Fruit flies have been getting closer to it. We've seen some ants, we've even seen butterflies on it. Although in the wild, what it’s getting pollinated by are carrion beetles and flies.”

The insects take the flower’s pollen and then go and distribute it to other corpse flowers, spreading their DNA.

But what attracts a fly is not necessarily what attracts a human.

Onlookers described it like this:

“Oooh, it’s really stinky.”

“Like garlic and sweaty feet.”

“Like if you took your teenage son's dirty laundry. Put it in a trash bag, threw in some hamburger meat, and then left that in the desert sun for a week.”

“The inside of someone's gym bag. But like someone's gym bag that you love, you know?”

The Cal Academy's Osher Rainforest room was packed on Wednesday morning, crowds gathering to smell and see Mirage
Wren Farrell
The Cal Academy's Osher Rainforest room was packed on Wednesday morning, crowds gathering to smell and see Mirage

Corpse flowers are at their stinkiest late at night, usually between midnight and four a.m. Sadly the academy didn’t allow guests in at this time, so only a few staff members got to smell Mirage at peak stink.

“I would describe it as a porta potty, but like a brand new one.”

This is Lauren Greig, she’s the horticulturalist here.

“It's kind of—it's got a very disgusting smell, but then there's also kind of this like very nice, rich, almost grainy aroma to it.”

She was one of the few people who got to spend the night with Mirage.

“So right now we're in kind of like a giant glass production facility. I could smell it outside of the facility, like a couple hallways and turns down.”

When Mirage is done blooming, scientists at the academy will begin the work of perpetuating her DNA. They’ll collect tissue samples and pollen and then send it to a botanical garden in Chicago, which is running a breeding program for corpse flowers.

“And they'll be doing this with various corpse flowers across the country. And then looking at all those individuals and saying, this institution should send pollen to this institution based on the relatedness of all the individuals in the program.” 

It’s like genetic matchmaking, but for flowers. Once they find matches, the pollen will be used to grow more corpse flowers in greenhouses and labs across the country.

“You know, unfortunately plants don't get a lot of publicity, but there are a lot of species that just disappear and no one even notices. Um, so it's nice to have kind of a charismatic plant that people can really relate to and then they can start looking in their region and looking at what are threatened and endangered species there, because guaranteed you've got some.”

It’s gonna be awhile before another corpse flower blooms in the Bay Area. Maladora, at the Berkeley Botanical garden, should bloom sometime before 2027. It’ll be years before Mirage blooms again, but judging from the reactions here, it’ll be worth the wait.

Wren Farrell (he/him) is a writer, producer and journalist living in San Francisco.