Titan VanCoug Keeps Us Guessing

Titan VanCoug, WSU Vancouver’s corpse flower, had Associate Professor of Molecular Biosciences Steve Sylvester on tenterhooks this summer. With two new sprouts appearing in June and July, Sylvester, who has raised Titan VanCoug from a seed, was wondering if one of those sprouts would be a bloom. In July 2019, Titan VanCoug produced its first bloom. Could it produce a second bloom just one year later? Unfortunately, the answer was no. The new sprouts turned out to be leaves. In fact, Titan VanCoug currently has four leaves showing, proving that the original corm, which split due to overwatering, is now four healthy plants. And, two of the leaves are nearly 12 feet tall, a sign that a bloom could be coming in the near future.

Podcast: A Conversation with Steve Sylvester about Titan VanCoug

Learn more about Titan VanCoug's journey from seed to bloom. Check out the podcast "A Conversation about Titan VanCoug with Steve Sylvester" here:


Kate Holland-Stone: Hello, my name is Kate Holland-Stone with department of Marketing and Communications here at Washington State University Vancouver. I'm joined today by Steve Sylvester, associate professor in the School of Molecular Bio Sciences in the College of Veterinary Medicine at Washington State University. Steve, thank you so much for joining me today.

Steve Sylvester: Happy to be here.

Kate Holland-Stone: Can you tell me a little bit about your research here at WSU Vancouver and what you do?

Steve Sylvester: Okay, I've had a very rich and rewarding career working in a variety of different animal subjects, from man and even non animal subjects down to yeast over the years. I am sort of endocrinologist reproductive toxicologist. I look at the world at the molecular level and use many tools of molecular biology, DNA and RNA and protein analysis and small molecules and rely on the microscope now and then for looking at tissue and cellular responses, with just a large variety of instruments. Here at Vancouver, I've worked on fish. I tried to come up with a fish sterilant that was easy to administer and had no side effects. Because fish farming is becoming more common and it takes a lot of food to produce a fish and they can get out and interbreed in the environment, and we don't want that and sterile fish grow three times faster on the same amount of food and produce one third of the excrement. So, unfortunately, it didn't work out. Science goes that way. I worked with the oyster men on an invasive snail. I discovered or rediscovered a pheromone that is released by the snails to communicate with each other and a pheromone released by oysters that the snails use to find them. I will continue that research with a collaborator as a consultant. Other things, I looked at biological actions that are going on in male reproductive tissues in mice here, studied a lot about iron metabolism as it relates to reproductive processes. And right now, my grand finale is a research contract from the Water Research Foundation. And what we're doing is trying to identify the molecular mechanism of cancer that is caused by bromate in drinking water. Bromate occurs in drinking water that has been derived from desalinated seawater by the process of reverse osmosis. And this is becoming the way to provide fresh water to populations much cheaper than older distillation processes. And the problem is a little bit of bromidiam comes across with the water and gets in the drinking water. And when that water is disinfected with chlorine, ozone or ultraviolet under certain conditions, bromate is made and at certain levels bromate causes cancer in rats. So we use rats as a model organism. And we've given them doses of bromate that is below the level that causes cancer and ask the question, what gene expression has changed? What's happened to proteins? What's happened to hormones? And we found some very interesting things. I suspect that the World Health Organization and the EPA will use our data to modify the allowed levels. And then the engineering companies that produce these desalination plants will have to modify them in order to accomplish that reduced level of exposure. So that's what I'm working on right now.

Kate Holland-Stone: That's fascinating and seems like really important research, especially going forward with what's going on in the world today. So with this kind of research focus, which doesn't seem very highly tied to botany or plants, what prompted an interest in corpse flowers to begin with?

Steve Sylvester: Well, I knew about them, you know, many many years ago and was very curious about them and always wanted to experience a bloom and smell it because that is pretty significant that plant would use a pheromone to enhance its breeding. I read a news feed called Science Daily, just about on a daily basis. And back in 2002, a bloom was reported at the University of Wisconsin, and they were going to make seeds available to universities, conservatories, etc. And I had just heard "what university" too many times here at WSU Vancouver. I was the first scientist to stay here permanently, and we were real small. And I just I wanted people to know that we're here, and that we're a research university. That we're doing significant research in all fields, social and biomedical and engineering and business that is helping humanity. And how do we get people to know we're here, you know, it's in the newspaper? Well, I decided that I would ask for a seed for a titan arum and grow it up because on average 20 to 25,000 people would come to experience this boom. So, I thought that that would be a good way to bring people to this campus. Also, when I got the seed, not much was known about the chemistry of the very rotten flesh smelling pheromone. And I sort of wanted to do that, too. However, that was well described prior to my first bloom, so I didn't get to do that.

Kate Holland-Stone: So you got a seed from the University of Wisconsin. Can you share with us when you planted it and the process that it took to grow the corpse flower?

Steve Sylvester: You bet. Yes. So I got the seed in 2002. And I got three seeds. I gave one to a botanist and one to another professor. And one sat in a desk drawer for too long and the other one grew a plant but the postdoc who was taking care of it moved on and it was forgotten and it died. So, I planted my seed in a pot with some Miracle Gro planting soil, which is the wrong soil, but it worked. And up popped this little plant looking like a miniature palm tree, sort of, about a foot tall, and then it stopped growing. And so I just kept watering it and taking care of it. It was in my office on the floor. And then it turned yellow and died, and I thought nuts, I did something wrong. I don't have enough knowledge of botany, I'm an animal science type person. Well then a little sprout came up. After that first leaf, it's actually just the leaf, one leaf and the next sprout grew a leaf that was about 18 inches tall and then it turned yellow and died. And I'm going, okay, I've got this figured out. Sure enough, here comes another sprout up to about two feet. And then it started getting a little bit big for my office. So I moved it down to the lab, and I put it in a window down there. And it went from four to six to eight feet. And it was getting a little bit big for the lab plus I wanted the window for another project. So I moved it out into the hall, it kept getting larger and larger and starting to get towards the ceiling. A fairly large leaf started yellow. Okay, no problem. Well, somebody decided that I must not be watering it because it was turning yellow. And they over watered it. And I came in one day and it had bent in half and shot sap all over the wall and it exploded. And I thought, Oh my gosh, what's going to happen now. So what happened is another sprout came up, but it was smaller than the leaf that had exploded, and then another sprout and another and finally the fourth sprout. But each one of these was smaller. So that told me what happened was that not only did the leaf explode, but the tuber the corm it's called also fractured. And four fragments were big enough to support their own leaf. So I had four plants for quite a while I still do, and the normal timeline of 10 to 11 years, that's for one plant, but when it exploded, it reset the timeline. So it wasn't until 18 years 17/18 years, that it finally put up the first bloom. That's the history of the first boom. The bloom died, and another sprout came up and another sprout and then just in the past couple of months, two more sprouts. But I've got four leaves now. And one of those leaves is very large, as large as the precursor of the bloom. So it will die back in a few months and then the corm will rest for a few months. And then that corm will decide is a time for a bloom or a leaf. Likewise, the other three corms so it's not common necessarily wasn't for a bloom to die back and produce another leaf, frequently they just died away, but I think it's because of nutrients and watering, that we are able to get a leaf back from a bloom. So I've got four four leaves up right now.

Kate Holland-Stone: That's just amazing. And I'm assuming this isn't normal, and this is what makes Titan VanCoug different than other corpse flowers.

Steve Sylvester: Yes, there have been, I've seen one picture of a bloom with a leaf. So that's two plants. But I'm the only person I know who's got four plants in one pot, and they're all clones. They're genetically identical. So yeah, it's kind of it's kind of unique. I can have two blooms at once. I can have four blooms at once, who knows

Kate Holland-Stone: You just never know.

Steve Sylvester: The plant makes its own decisions.

Kate Holland-Stone: So how did the plant get the name Titan VanCoug?

Steve Sylvester: Well, most people name their Titans. It's, you know, a long process, say 10 or 11 years to get a bloom. And so they give them sometimes comical names and other things. And I wanted something that related to WSU Vancouver. And I was thinking of Titan Butch, you know, but the WSU Vancouver students like to call themselves VanCougs, so I asked a person in student activities, Michelle McIlvoy, if she had a suggestion and she said, "well, they like to call themselves VanCougs," so Titan VanCoug. And now it's debatable. I've got four. Is it Titan VanCoug 1 or 2,3,4? or something else? I haven't decided?

Kate Holland-Stone: Or are they just all universally Titan VanCougs? Who knows?

Steve Sylvester: They're all clones. So they're technically all Titan VanCougs.

Kate Holland-Stone: Can you tell me about Titan VanCoug's first bloom?

Steve Sylvester: Yeah, you know, it was another sprout and the way you tell the difference between a sprout that's going to be a bloom versus a leaf is the leaf sprouts are very symmetrical, looking like a rocket tip. Whereas the blooms look a little pregnant on one side, and I had a sprout come up the morning of the solar eclipse that was a little bit off center, but it turned into a leaf. Well, then this sprout came up, and it was a little more off center. And so I thought, well, maybe this is a bloom. I had talked this up to a group on campus in case a bloom happened so we could plan for it and notified them that this was a possibility. And at the time, I had another leaf up that was starting to die back. And I needed to repot the plant because it was in a 24 inch diameter top and about a 12 or 14 inch diameter taper down to the bottom planter that just was not big enough. But I had seen one picture on the internet where a group of people were holding a leaf, you know, horizontally while somebody was knocking the planter off to do a transplant, but I had four leaves and I didn't think that was feasible most of the time. And when it dies, there's a brief time before another sprout comes up and a lot of people will get rid of the dirt and clean the corm off and then transfer it to a new pot. Well, I never had at that advantage after there were four plants there were always leaves in the way. So what I decided when I found out it was a bloom is that I would prematurely cut down the leaf that was already beginning to die. So I did that. Well then there was a problem with how we're going to repot it. I sent a message to the scientist who had produced the seed. He had retired, so it took a while before he responded. And so I just went on my own. And we had a bunch of hypothetical "what if we did this? what if we did that?" and finally we decided to, with the help of fac ops, facilities operations on campus, use a strap to wrap around the lower, tapered, old pot and lift it up with a forklift and then center it down in a new pot and cut away the old pot, and it worked. And we got it nestled down in the new pot with a maybe a foot bed of new soil down below and more soil around the outside. A big pot which thankfully I got a donation from Vancouver Sunrise Rotary to purchase the pot. The price of pot skyrockets. It was over $500 for a 30 inch pot the 20 inch pot I got for about $40. So anyways, we got it potted, and I was happy. We moved it outdoors because you don't want a stinky plant in a building. People can't even come to work, some people can't take the smell, and we had to figure out a way to have people see it. So, we moved it outside where it wasn't a 70 degree building and repotted it and then I got the email back from the scientist who gave me the seed, and he said don't repot. Don't move it, don't change temperature, don't change anything. And I had committed four mistakes. And I was worried it wasn't gonna I mean, it can abort. And it grew fine. And then the weather took a turn. And it rained for a couple days, and it quit growing, and I thought, uh oh. So I notified the group that we may have an abort. But then it started growing again, and it kept growing. I predicted again, never trust the plant, that it was going to bloom within a week and went home, and I was mowing the lawn with my riding mower. And my wife came running out with my cell phone here. She says you've got a lot of calls, it's probably your sister again. My sister sends a lot of text messages to me. And so I, you know, look and it was campus police officer Jeanette Hurt, saying "It's blooming!" And I told that to my wife and she just turned around and ran back to the house and hopped in the car and drove the campus. And so I put the mower away, got a quick shower, got dressed, and tried not to speed to get to campus. And by the time I got here, the crowd was already starting. And it was just awesome.

Kate Holland-Stone: It was a good night I remember getting that call and also rushing to campus to get everything ready and set up. How long did the bloom last?

Steve Sylvester: It lasted at least for a day and a half. And every now and then on the second day and even the third day, I could get a little whiff, but because I was with it many, many hours. I was very attuned to the scent. And there was a subtle change in the scent that I noticed. That was eight o'clock in the evening when it first opened up. We had a crowd. I went home at two in the morning and got two hours of sleep and came back. Because the media wanted to be here for the morning shows and I started interviewing at 4:30. And I just interviewed until I think 9 a.m. And meanwhile, the rest of campus helpers were scrambling to set everything up. It was just amazing to see everybody put in and get things going and going pretty well giving the the short notice that we had to work on I think we did a really good job of showing the plant. We did come up with things we could do better. But we did a good job for the public and the public was extremely patient. People would stand in line for two hours and still be happy to be there and smell and see the bloom.

Kate Holland-Stone: Yeah, in my standing around and talking to people and taking pictures. I heard a lot of different things that people said the plant smelled like. What did the plant smell like to you?

Steve Sylvester: It was kind of a combination of things. It wasn't as bad as I thought it would be. I've experienced dead rats that have sat under house for a while and other animals that I've run into in the field. And they're pretty bad. I was an athlete in college. I know what dirty socks smell like. I didn't think that was it but a lot of people did. So to me, it was definitely a dead animal smell. One reporter said she had worked with the coroner. And oh, yeah, you know, she recognized the smell. So definitely the smell of death. And that's how the plant uses it to draw the flies that would normally land on a corpse to lay eggs.

Kate Holland-Stone: What were you surprised to learn about the Bloom?

Steve Sylvester: Well, boy, I learned a lot. I learned. I mean, I think I read every site on the internet, learning how to try to take care of the plant. And just to mention or a picture or something would lead me to do something, but I learned a lot more during the bloom. I had never witnessed the bloom and never seen the flowers, the male or the female flowers. So to see them, I cut a window. In the outer, it's called the spathe, to get to the real flowers which are down on the bottom of the spadix, the center. What you see what people saw was actually called an inflorescence, a flower holder, and it was only through that window. We moved the camera over sometimes so that they could see the real flowers and they look like Dr. Seuss flowers. They didn't look like any flower you've ever seen. So to experience that and then I've never pollinated before, and I read that again and learned as much as I could and did it. I think I did it right. Unfortunately, however Northwest mold got on the flowers and they all molded and died. So I learned don't leave it out in our environment. And change, I would cut the spathe the way after a day or two and not wait for it to rot and fall on its own that would minimize the moisture. And then maybe you just can't do it in the Pacific Northwest but U Dub has but I don't have a greenhouse. Titan VanCoug is fairly unique in that respect in that it never was in a greenhouse and the native conditions in Sumatra are 80 degrees Fahrenheit and 80% humidity and never ever saw any percent humidity and two days of its life it saw 80 degrees Fahrenheit.

Kate Holland-Stone: So it's doing pretty well then, in non-native conditions.

Steve Sylvester: Yeah.

Kate Holland-Stone: You talked about the current state of Titan VanCoug in that there are currently four leaves up right now

Steve Sylvester: There are four leaves and one of them is 11 feet above the pot. Another one is 10 feet above the pot. And then there's one that's still growing. It hasn't unfolded yet. And then the most recent bloom, the June 1 bloom, just the top top tip opened up that I could see the leaflets beginning to poke out there. So I know it's a leaf and not a bloom. So how high each one of those will get that depends on how much nutrient is in their corm, but the one that has been up and that came up after Titan VanCoug bloomed, that's a really big leaf and it's stayed up a long time. It hasn't turned yellow yet. So it's putting a lot of nutrition down into the tuber, the corm, and I'm hopeful that that will be a bloom.

Kate Holland-Stone: So along with that, then do you have a prediction of when you expect Titan VanCoug to bloom again?

Steve Sylvester: I've learned not to predict.

Kate Holland-Stone: But if you had a prediction?

Steve Sylvester: I would hope next summer. Yes.

Kate Holland-Stone: Okay.

Steve Sylvester: Could be in the spring but again the plant does what it wants to do.

Kate Holland-Stone: That's fair. Do you think that with the conditions in the building with the AC being turned off? Do you think that's a lended to Titan getting bigger leaves and other things like that? Do you think that may have helped?

Steve Sylvester: I think that the one thing that I think I've noticed is that the leaf that came up is lasting a little bit longer. I would have expected it to start yellowing now, but I don't know. Yes, the air conditioning is off so I've had to water more. I had to change my watering regimen. I only water Monday morning, takes me five minutes. The plant just does not need a lot of care, fortunate for me. I water it Monday morning, and then when I go by on running an errand and around campus or something I'll check on it just to see what's going on. But it's going great. and I actually doubled the amount of water and seems to be working fine.

Kate Holland-Stone: So how many people do you estimate visited Titan VanCoug when it last bloomed?

Steve Sylvester: Lieutenant Stevenson looked at videos and counted how many people moved past a certain area at a given time and came up with an estimate of around 20,000 people. I think that's a good estimate that based on on some data rather than just guesstimate. And there were a lot of people and every now and then I would ask them to raise their hands if that was their first time to campus. And usually the rounds was about 80 to 90%. So the plant did its job that I wanted it to do.

Kate Holland-Stone: So that must make you feel pretty great.

Steve Sylvester: Yeah. It did. No, it just, that's what I wanted. And people would ask me, why did you do this? I said to bring you here. So a lot more people know we exist. And because of the rush, we didn't get the research display going as well as I wanted, but there were quite a few graduate students with posters in the line talking about their research and a lot of people, "I had no idea you did research on the campus." Yeah, we're a research one university. We're contributing to society in addition to training future generations.

Kate Holland-Stone: Is there anything else you want people to know about Titan VanCoug, or WSU Vancouver before we end today?

Steve Sylvester: Well, we're here. We do significant research. And I believe it's a good place to get a good education. We're growing. We will continue to grow. Somehow. We will try to make Titan VanCoug's next bloom available. Some conservatories hide them because it's quite a process. And we were lucky because the bloom occurred between summer semester and fall semester, we did not have a parking problem. And we had a whole bunch of people who volunteered to help because they you know, didn't have to be teaching or doing other things. And that's not easy to pull off. So, you know, we've got a few ideas that we're bouncing around, and we'll just have to see what happens.

Kate Holland-Stone: Well, thank you so much, Steve, for joining me today and sharing your love of Titan VanCoug and WSU Vancouver with the Vancouver community and and the world. I really appreciate you joining us. Thank you. Thank you so much.

Steve Sylvester: You bet.

Kate Holland-Stone: Thank you for joining us today. As we learn a little bit more about Titan, VanCoug and Steve's journey bringing it to WSU Vancouver. I hope you'll have a wonderful day.

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