“Feed Me, Seymour!” ~ Audrey II, Little Shop of Horrors
When it comes to films (and musicals), the 1986 nerdy cult classic Little Shop of Horrors is on my Top 10 list. If you have a cynical sense of humor, it’s a movie you’ll want to see. In the movie, Seymour, a flower shop assistant discovers an unusual and unique plant in the wholesale flower district during a total eclipse of the sun. He names the plant Audrey II after his co-worker Audrey, who Seymour secretly pines after. Audrey II attracts a great deal of business to the flower shop. But she does so at an extremely steep price: she only feeds on human flesh and blood. Giving into relentless pressure from Audrey II, Seymour feeds Audrey’s boyfriend Orin to the plant following his accidental death. But Audrey II is never content and requires an ever-increasing number of human meals to satisfy her blood-lust.
Now for the spooky part: Just following the total solar eclipse on August 21, 2017, a large, mysterious flower pot appeared in the Gillware break room. What a surprising example of life imitating fiction!
“On the twenty-third day of the month of September, in an early year of a decade not too long before our own, the human race suddenly encountered a deadly threat to its very existence. And this terrifying enemy surfaced, as such enemies often do, in the seemingly most innocent and unlikely of places…” ~ The Narrator, Little Shop of Horrors
After some inquiries, I learned that the pre-emergent plant was not an invader from the furthest reaches of deep space, but rather an Amorphophallus titanum, more commonly known as the Corpse Flower. And while the name might imply otherwise, this flower is quite harmless to humans.
In case you’re not aware of it, the Corpse Flower is a singularly unique and fairly rare plant. Outside of its natural habitat, this specimen is much more likely to exist in botanical gardens or the conservatories of universities than in a digital forensics and data recovery company in Madison, Wisconsin.
I have been a Little Shop of Horrors fan for years. During my time in the digital forensics lab at Madison Police Department, I named our server Audrey II, in wry recognition of the seemingly endless amounts of data related to human tragedy we fed into it. I saved the Little Shop of Horrors sign that hung on our forensic server after I retired. Now it hangs near Gillware’s emerging corpse plant, which we have affectionately dubbed “Stinky Audrey.”
Amorphophallus titanum is a tropical rainforest plant native to western Sumatra. If you do a little research, you’ll find it described as “a specialty plant for dedicated and patient gardeners who have the perseverance to care for this giant for ten years or more before seeing it flower.”
Patient indeed! The Corpse Flower is also the largest flower, or rather, inflorescence, in the world. (An inflorescence is a cluster of flowers arranged on a stem.) The Corpse Flower grows from an underground plant stem similar to a bulb, which is known as a corm. Once it starts to grow, it grows fast! You can see a picture of Stinky Audrey’s corm to the right, in a photo taken when she was first planted.
For a while, we weren’t sure Stinky Audrey would grow at all. But sure enough, she broke the surface of the dirt on September 26th, 2017. (Thank goodness it wasn’t the 23rd day of September!) She’s been unstoppable ever since.
“The flower smells like rotting fish, sweaty socks, and feces (aka, like a frat house) which attracts its preferred pollinators… flies and carrion beetles.” ~ Dennis Carey and Michael Spafford, Plant Delights
Audrey is a plant that you can watch grow—and it’s way more exciting than watching grass grow. She grows up to several inches each day. The Gillware team, in true geek fashion, trained a time-lapse video camera on her so you can watch that growth happen at high speed (video updated for Halloween 2017):
Under Gillware’s carefully controlled UV lights and watchful eyes, Audrey will grow to the size of a small tree, and her central spike leaf will at some point branch into three sections, each containing many leaflets. The leaf structure can grow to 20 feet tall and 16 feet across. (Where we move Audrey to when she outgrows her current lodgings is a bridge we will cross when we come to it.)
Every year, after gathering energy and storing it away in the corm, the old leaf will die, and a new one will emerge to replace it. Eventually, when the corm stores enough energy, the plant goes into a dormant period.
Despite the moniker we’ve given her, Stinky Audrey doesn’t stink… yet. If we’re lucky, in 7 to 10 years of stocking away energy in her corm, Stinky Audrey may bloom. If she does, she’ll produce a bright reddish purplish flower with a magnificently stinky odor reminiscent of rotting meat. This odor is designed to attract bugs that feed on dead things.
We’re not quite sure how long it will take for this marvelous event to occur. The life cycle of Amorphophallus titanum is, like a human life cycle, unpredictable. And to boot, we don’t know how long Audrey’s spent already stockpiling energy in her corm before we received it. But we’re dedicated to seeing Audrey through and witnessing her once-in-a-decade flowering. While it may be quite odorous, this occasion will most certainly not be dolorous.
We’re very excited to welcome Stinky Audrey to Gillware’s lab, and we hope she’ll be with us for the long haul. It’ll take a lot of hard work, but with our help, this fine young flower will blossom into a valued and fabulous member of Gillware’s already-fantastic family.