by C. J. Hirschfield
In 2017, more than 130,000 people came to see a corpse flower (Amorphophallus titanum) bloom in person at the U.S. Botanic Garden in Washington, DC and more than 650,000 viewers accessed the live web stream. The public’s fascination with this endangered Sumatran rainforest plant is no doubt due to its great height (up to 12 feet), powerful stink, and fleeting presence. Fewer than 1000 individuals exist in the wild, a decrease of 50 percent over the last 150 years.
On June 14 and 15, some lucky residents of Oakland had the amazing opportunity to meet Victoria—a corpse flower in full bloom, and stench–at the Adams Point home of Kyle Milligan and Susan Casentini, an event organized to raise funds for Oakland’s Pollinator Posse.
Kyle is recently retired, a past president of the Lake Merritt Breakfast Club, and a current Children’s Fairyland board member. He and his wife Susan are garden hobbyists; Susan is also a passionate baker.
The couple’s relationship with Victoria (technically they/them, because the plant contains both sexes) began in 2005, when they saw Victoria’s mother bloom at the U.C. Botanical Garden. A year later, they purchased an 8-inch seedling in a pot at the Garden, and raised it indoors for a couple of years. The plant cycle is unique—leaves pop up, then die back into the bulb—or corm (“a big old hairy bulb,” Kyle calls it), with each new leaf a bit larger than the last. It takes 10-15 years for the plant to fully mature and display the huge flower for which it’s known.
In 2008, Kyle began constructing his dream—a Victorian greenhouse/conservatory to replace a 1970s rear addition to the couple’s historic home. At the time, he didn’t realize that it would be the perfect hot and humid environment for Victoria to thrive and grow. But it was. In 2009, the plant’s home was a one-gallon pot; in 2012 she needed five gallons; and in 2018 Kyle had to build a large box to contain the corm, which typically weighs 40 pounds before generating a bloom that requires all of the plant’s energy.
The last “leaf” of the plant (which looks like a tree) was huge—10 feet tall and 12 feet wide. It keeled over, shriveled up, and Victoria went dormant for six months. Kyle tended to the plant every day. It blooms only when sufficient energy is accumulated, making the time between blooms, which varies from a few years to more than a decade, unpredictable.
When Victoria finally emerged and began to enter her flower phase, Kyle and Susan weren’t prepared for the speed with which the process would take place. They thought they would have months to prepare and to schedule horticultural talks prior to the event. But Victoria was working on her own timetable and reached her full glory in only three weeks, starting to smell on the evening of June 13th. The couple always knew that they wanted to use the event to support Oakland’s Pollinator Posse, whose mission is to “create pollinator-friendly landscaping and foster appreciation of local ecosystems through outreach, education and direct action,” so they called on the group to put the word out.
So exactly how badly was her stink? In addition to the odor, the plant also generates heat, which allows the stench to travel further. In Sumatra, this combination of heat and smell efficiently lures corpse-attracted pollinators, such as carrion beetles and flies, from across long distances. Kyle’s neighbors definitely experienced Victoria before they saw her.
Visitors to the greenhouse included a virtual who’s-who of the East Bay gardening and naturalist community. As you can imagine, kids loved it. Some people came multiple times. Many photos were taken, and noses were held for selfie portraits with the queen. Kyle and Susan estimate that over 500 people showed up, many of whom made donations, totaling close to $3,700, to the Pollinator Posse.
Victoria’s peak moment coincided with the State of California’s announcement easing its restrictions on wearing masks outdoors, so the corpse flower viewing event took on the feel of joy, regeneration, and community. Kyle and Susan met many neighbors for the first time, and a good time was had by all.
Here are some of the reactions to Victoria by those lucky enough to see and experience her:
Brooke Levin, Pollinator Posse: “Meeting Victoria the Corpse Flower was a full body experience, her glory, her scent, her blossom and stature were dream-like. She was a royal dear, blessed to have met her.”
Damon Tighe, local nature enthusiast: “The olfactory overtures that escaped Victoria’s pleated spathe were the most surprising thing of all, as I imagined a constant Eau de Death and yet the only thing constant was the flower’s radiating forestry colors and a swirl of awed visitors.”
Nancy Friedman, neighbor: “I felt very privileged to have a corpse flower so close to home (I mean, literally across the street). Its size was overwhelming, its scent less corpse-y than I’d imagined. It was such a thrilling experience that I returned on the second day with another Oakland friend.”
Terry Smith, co-founder of Pollinator Posse: “I feel deeply honored to have spent two days in the presence of such a spectacular life form and thoroughly enjoyed introducing Victoria the Corpse Flower to her awestruck public. The days were filled with amazed faces and endless curiosity–what more could a teacher and pollinator activist ask for?”
Now that Victoria has returned to the earth, Kyle and Susan have the opportunity to reflect on the experience. If they’d had more time, they would have collected her pollen–the corpse plant can’t self-pollinate–and would have continued their correspondence with the nice folks at the US Botanical Garden about receiving their pollen. But Kyle wonders: if he did pollinate Victoria, what would he do with 100 seedlings? “I don’t want to go into the corpse flower business,” he says.
Right now, the couple is wondering when Victoria’s next leaf will come up. Her second floral bloom—“a huge guess,” says Kyle—might be in four to six years.
For those inspired by strange and putrid flowers, Kyle and Susan have a couple of suggestions. First, check out the Pollinator Posse’s program “Stinky Flowers and the Fly Pollinators That Love Them”
And check out a plant called the Voodoo Lily, which is much smaller, faster blooming and easier to grow in our area than the corpse flower. There’s one living at Children’s Fairyland, and the kids love it. Susan likes to think of planting unique and dark flowers as “Goth gardening.”
Kyle and Susan aren’t sad that Victoria has returned to the earth. “She’s not gone; she’s just a teenager,” says Susan. “It’s like a Victorian séance– she’ll definitely rise again.”
Editor’s Note: The photo of Kyle and Susan is by Rusty Blazenhoff. The remainder are courtesy of Damon Tighe, Susan Casentini and others.
C. J. Hirschfield recently retired after 17 years as Executive Director of Children’s Fairyland, where she was charged with the overall operation of the nation’s first storybook theme park. Prior to that, she served as an executive in the cable television industry where she produced two series, ran San Francisco’s public access channel, and advocated on behalf of the industry. She has penned a weekly column for the Piedmont Post for 13 years, and now writes regularly for The Oaklandside, EatDrinkFilms and Splash Pad News. She holds a degree in Film and Broadcasting from Stanford University. Hirschfield currently lives in Adams Point and serves on the programming team for the Appreciating Diversity Film Series showing free documentaries in Oakland and Piedmont, as well as on the advisory board of Youth Beat, a youth media training program that provides low-income Oakland students with the tools and opportunities they need to thrive in today’s workforce.