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The Corpse Flower Known As Phil Finally Bloomed In Long Beach

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This is Laura. She bloomed in 2015 at Cal State Long Beach. (Courtesy of CSU Long Beach)
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Updated 6/3/19

Meet Phil.

He's Sumatran, about 5'8", sensitive, currently resides in Long Beach. And, this is rather embarrassing, but, he reeks.

Don't feel too bad for him, though. He actually makes it work. Being a corpse flower, his stench is really the thing that gives him his, you know, sexual power.

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Phil became a celebrity over the weekend because he finally did what corpse flowers only get to do every 10 or 15 years: bloom.

When they bloom, corpse flowers smell like rotting flesh. It's "worse than roadkill," according to botanist Brian Thorson. I've personally never smelled one, but Thorson would know, since he's the one who raised Phil at Cal State Long Beach.

It's a stench so powerful that if you're standing within a few feet of it, your throat may seize up and you'll start coughing, Thorson said.

"It's really, really powerful. But from a distance, from a safe distance -- it still smells awful," he said. "But you know, you can appreciate how well it mimics the aroma of decaying flesh or organic material."

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This was Phil before a little more than a week before he bloomed. He measured around 4'6". (Courtesy of CSU Long Beach)

Phil was expected to bloom more than a week earlier, but he didn't. Eventually he had a whole lot of people waiting around for him like a certain other Phil. With every day that he delayed, Phil grew taller, until finally word came Sunday that he had made his grand appearance. As Thorson had warned, though, his show didn't last long. A bloom tends to last only 24-48 hours, and because it was Phil's first time, it ended up being on the shorter side (ahem).

WHAT'S PHIL'S STORY?

Phil is one of two corpse flowers at Cal State Long Beach (the other is Laura). So Phil is certainly a rare flower. In fact, corpse flowers in general are quite rare. They're native to Sumatra, but there are others you can find in Los Angeles, such as the one that ghosted L.A. last year at the Huntington Library and Botanical Gardens, Li'l Stinker, or the "Titan Triplets" that did put on a good show at the Huntington -- Stink, Stank and Stunk.

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What makes Phil so great, though, is:

1. He's got a more dignified name. Phil was named after Dr. Philip Baker, former professor of botany in the biological sciences department at CSU Long Beach. Baker was an instructor when Thorson was still a grad student at the school. Thorson says the two of them actually became good friends over time.

"Before he passed away, I even told him that I was naming one of [the corpse flowers] after him and he was tickled pink," Thorson said. "Because it's flattering, but it's also the double entendre, because it's so stinky."

2. He exudes youthful vigor. How so? Thorson says working with Phil has been an entirely different experience than working with fellow flower Laura, who bloomed in 2015, mostly because of how fast Phil grew.

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"I would walk in every morning and be shocked by the height that it had attained overnight. Six inches one day, eight inches another day. It was such a surprise to me," Thorson said. "We were expecting to do this at the end of May or beginning of June. And I had to go to the people in our department and say, 'Hey, we need to do something now because this guy is going to open anytime.'" (It turns out he did wait until early June.)

BUT WHY DOES HE STINK?

"It's part of its reproductive biology," Thorson said. "It attracts carrion beetle as its pollinating vector."

Carrion beetles, of course, prefer carrion. Like any flowering plant, Phil can't reproduce on his own, so he needs something else to carry his pollen to another flower. If he can smell like dead meat, then that beetle will come right along, snoop around for a bit (all the while getting all covered in pollen), realize there's no meat to be had, wander off in search of more meat, and, hopefully, mess around with another corpse flower, leaving behind some of Phil's pollen in the process.

I mean, let's be honest, it's really not any more strange than spritzing yourself with flower-scented perfume to attract your mate. What's funny is that Phil's a flower, and he's using meat scent.

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Part of Phil's inflorescence. (Courtesy of CSU Long Beach)

WHY IS IT SO RARE TO SEE PHIL BLOOM?

Long story short, it takes a lot of work to smell so bad.

First, there's this giant structure to create. Let's not forget Phil's as tall as a human. And this structure, which botanists refer to as an inflorescence, is not just a single flower -- it includes hundreds of flowers around the base, according to Thorson.

On top of that, it takes a lot of energy and nutrients to create that pi├Ęce de r├ęsistance, the essence of decay.

Just take a look at Phil's heart, the bulbous rootlike thing underground where he stores all his energy for producing a flower. Scientists call it a corm. After blooming, the corm shrinks to about a third of its size, having expended all its reserves. It takes many, many years for it to accumulate enough energy to bloom again.

HOW DOES ONE CARE FOR A PLANT LIKE PHIL?

In their native habitat, which is tropical, these flowers get a lot of natural irrigation, Thorson says. Those conditions need to be replicated closely in a greenhouse to ensure the plants get enough moisture to survive.

But it's a delicate thing. Too much moisture can invite bacteria or fungi, which would slowly eat away at the plant, so Thorson re-pots Phil every year.

"That's what happens with most of the plants in cultivation, is the grower loses it to rot," Thorson said. (A pro tip for all you amateur botanists out there.)

SMELL YOU LATER, PHIL

Before Phil bloomed, Thorson had said he was feeling a little bittersweet. All this time spent with Phil, nurturing him, helping him grow, only to get a few fleeting hours together. Now that Phil has bloomed, we won't be seeing him again for another decade.

"So I'll be waiting," Thorson said. "Not so patiently, but I'll be waiting."

UPDATES:

12:58 p.m. on June 3: This article was updated with details on the corpse flower's blooming.

6:44 p.m. Friday: This article was updated to indicate that another day had passed without a bloom.

4:54 p.m. Thursday: This article was updated to include new details on when the bloom will happen.

7:27 a.m. Thursday: This article was updated to include mention of three additional corpse flowers at the Huntington -- Stink, Stank and Stunk. (h/t to Kasey Kline for letting us know on our Facebook page!)

Brianna Flores contributed to this story.