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November 1, 2013

Despite the smell, Perry-the-plant draws a crowd

ST. PETER, Minn. — Roxanne Skogerboe's visit to the famed corpse flower was short and not sweet. She came in one door of the greenhouse at Gustavus Adolphus College, clasped her hand to her nose, sped past the big plant and shot out the other door.

"It's a cool thing, but I could have done without the smell," said Skogerboe. "I started gagging."

The college's rare Amorphophallus titanum plant, affectionately known as Perry, began blooming Thursday and was likely to be mostly done by Friday. During that short span, people from across Minnesota are expected to have visited this small liberal arts college for a view - and maybe a whiff.

"It's very popular," said chemistry professor Brian O'Brien, who cultivated the plant in 1998 with seeds from a San Francisco physician.

The corpse flower - its name comes from the repulsive scent it emits during the hours after it blooms - is found naturally only in the tropical rainforests of Sumatra, Indonesia. O'Brien said there are probably a few hundred plants cultivated elsewhere.

The flowers live for about 40 years and bloom every three to 10 years. Gustavus has a few other corpse plants, though their blooming stages uncertain.

This much is for sure: The blooming plants are a spectacle. When Perry first bloomed in 2007, about 7,000 visitors came to Gustavus to witness it. During its 2010 bloom, about 5,000 came to see the plant.

This year's visitors, invited to leave their impressions in a book, have compared Perry's smell to boiled cabbage, sauerkraut, poop, stinky shoes, road kill and zombies.

Bruce and Linda Ellefson of St. Peter came to see the plant for the first time, drawn by their son, Adam, a Gustavus student who helps in the greenhouse.

"The smell's not as bad as I thought it would be. It's not overwhelmingly horrible," said Bruce Ellefson said. "It's ironic it bloomed on Halloween. It's very appropriate."

Tim Krohn writes for The Free Press in Mankato, Minn.

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