Raising the DeadSOMETHING IS ROTTEN IN GILFORD, NEW HAMPSHIRE
It’s hard to predict when an Amorphophallus titanium will make its move. It could take a couple of years; it could be decades. But it is almost always—appropriately—at night. Then the single, giant bloom, which can tower over a full-grown man, summons the energy it has stored from the sun over many months, unfurls its blood-red single petal, and sends wafting the unmistakable stench of death.
Some have likened the smell to dog vomit, old fish, or rotten sauerkraut. Louis Ricciardiello, D78, DG82, an oral surgeon in Gilford, New Hampshire, who has raised hundreds of the so-called corpse flowers, shakes his head. “It smells like decaying flesh, like a dead animal,” he says with finality. The odor does have a purpose: to attract beetles, bees, and other carrion-loving insects to pollinate the plant. The corpse flower’s motive is less morbid than that of a Venus fly trap, despite its macabre name.
Ricciardiello started raising these rare and spectacular flowers ten years ago. He had been growing orchids since 1984 and was looking for something a little more adventuresome. He read about the corpse flower, which grows wild only in Sumatra and was notorious for being hard to cultivate, even at botanical gardens. “I liked the challenge of seeing if I could make it grow,” says Ricciardiello.
After some patient searching, he managed to purchase a dozen almond-sized seeds taken from a bloom in Wisconsin. Adding to the mystery of the flower was a dearth of information about how to care for it. Even with the eight thousand square feet of greenhouse space he had built to raise orchids—featuring computer-controlled temperature and humidity and shades that respond to signals from a weather station on the roof—Ricciardiello faced a good deal of trial and error. Some experts said conditions had to perfectly mimic Sumatra, where the temperature rarely strays from eighty degrees. That would be prohibitively expensive for Ricciardiello’s oil-heated greenhouses on cold New Hampshire nights. “So I picked sixty-five degrees, and it has worked out okay,” he says, with typical understatement.
Indeed, from that handful of seeds he now has three hundred plants in various stages of growth. When they are not preparing to bloom, the plants look like trees, with smooth green trunks and thick leaves. Some reach to the ceiling.
Every four or five months, the foliage dies off, and the plant looks like a barren pot of dirt. But beneath the soil, the plant’s tuber is working. “That bulb is storing energy,” Ricciardiello says. “And one day, if it has enough energy, it will flower.”
When that time comes, the plant sends up a chimneylike tube surrounded by what looks like a single petal, called a spathe, green on the outside and deep crimson on the inside. “In England, when the Kew Gardens were first opened up, women were not allowed to view the flower,” Ricciardiello says. After all, its scientific name translates roughly to “giant, misshapen penis.”
The first of Ricciardiello’s plants bloomed in 2006. He put it on display at the town fire station to raise money for local charities. Some three thousand people came—half to see it, half just to smell it. To release the smell, the flower first needs to raise its temperature—one was documented to reach ninety-six degrees. The heat activates the stinky sulfur compounds and also causes the scent to rise so it can better travel through the rainforest, attracting those desirable pollinating insects.
Although its bloom lasts only two or three days, the plant takes the prize for tallest flower in the world. And Ricciardiello’s specimens are giants among giants. In 2010, the Guinness Book of World Records recognized one of his blooms as the tallest corpse flower ever recorded, at ten feet, two and a quarter inches.
He has also cleared up a few misconceptions about the plant. Ten years ago, he read repeatedly that the plant would die after flowering, but he has had encores. Some claim that it takes ten years to bloom. “That’s not true,” he says. “They will bloom every two years, every three years.” They also tend to bloom in clusters: last spring, he had about thirty in flower at once. (And yes, you do get used to the smell after a while.)
The plants have been so fruitful, in fact, that Ricciardiello is trying to divest a bit. He donated one to the Franklin Park Zoo, in Boston, where more than 11,900 visitors came to see it when it bloomed last spring. He gave two to the Niagara Parks Commission; they are believed to be the first in Canada. A botanical garden in Beijing owns two 150-pound tubers Ricciardiello raised. “They are like rock stars in China,” he observes.
But that is as close as he comes to bragging. Ever the self-effacing botanist, he would rather talk about plants than himself. One former neighbor says she went through some effort just to get him to look up at her whenever they passed on the street. She succeeded, however, and they’ve been married five years now. Not that he is lacking in dramatic flair, especially when it comes to nature. His corpse flowers share space with a Madagascar palm, which if cut, will drip out a couple of gallons of water in an emergency, and an Australian grass tree, blackened by wildfires in its native land, that can serve as a compass, as it only blooms facing north. He used to raise giant pumpkins.
So it’s a safe bet Ricciardiello’s greenhouses will never be filled with roses, however sweet they may smell. He points to a Dorstenia gigas, a Dr. Seuss–like succulent that grows wild only on one small island in the Indian Ocean. “I like something like this,” he says, “something unusual.”
Julie Flaherty is a senior writer in Tufts’ Office of Publications. A version of this article appeared in Tufts Dental Medicine (Fall 2012).