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She ain't no Lois: Houston Zoo's corpse flower opens with no wait, no drama, no craziness; smelly today, gone tomorrow

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Visit Pewtunia in front of the Koolookamba Cave just inside the zoo's African Forest. Photo by Tyler Rudick
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Houston Zoo Horticultural Manager Joe Williams poses with the Pewtunia, the zoo's now-blooming corpse flower Photo by Tyler Rudick
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Measuring just above 3 feet, the corpse flower surprised zoo staff with an early bloom. Photo by Tyler Rudick
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Wow, that was fast . . .  Against all odds, Corpse Flower Pewtunia burst into full bloom at the Houston Zoo at around 5:30 a.m. Tuesday, less than 24 hours after the zoo let people know it even had a corpse flower.

In other words, Pewtunia's turned out to be the near complete opposite of Corpse Flower Lois, Houston's histrionic drama queen. Remember, the endless wait (of weeks) and the false bloom alarms that filled Lois' unforgettable reign at the Houston Museum of Natural Science in the summer of 2010. Lois sucked up every bit of attention, teased her fans. Pewtunia opened as quiet as could be. When the zoo wasn't even yet open for the day.

CultureMap had a quick audience with this strange, low-maintenance corpse flower Tuesday to capture the rare moment.

 Pewtunia is a bit of lightweight at around three feet, yet still offers a perfectly worthwhile performance. 

“Very few corpse flowers have bloomed in public view since the plant was first cataloged in 1878,” Houston Zoo horticulture manager Joe Williams tells CultureMap. Williams has fostered Pewtunia since its arrival this past spring from corpse flower experts Tindara's Orchids in Georgetown, Mass.

“They typically grow taller,” Williams says, “especially in their natural habitat in the rain forests of Sumatra where they can grow up to eight feet high.” Pewtunia is a bit of lightweight at around three feet, yet still offers a perfectly worthwhile performance.

Located in front of Koolookamba Cave within the zoo’s African Forest area, Pewtunia emits a subtler smell than anticipated.  A mixture of dead mouse and rotting compost fills the air, but only in brief, unpredictable waves. Up close, there’s often little to detect. A moment later, you need to keep you distance.

“Rather than pumping out the smell all at once,” Williams tells the gathering crowd, “the plant spreads it out in bursts to catch the most flies, while conserving its energy.”

Flies swarm around the spandex, the long lighter-colored central spire that makes the corpse plant one of the largest flowers of its type in the world. Already Pewtunia’s petals are beginning to droop, all part of its estimated 16-hour blooming cycle.

“If there were more that one corpse flower, the flies would move from plant to plant to pollinate the whole group during this short time,” zoo photographer Stephanie Adam says, capturing closeups of Pewtunia and its insect assistants.

While Williams reports that the Houston Zoo has another thriving corpse flower (also known as a titan arum) that's expected to bloom in the next two years, Pewtunia’s show could be over by Wednesday. Last zoo admission is at 6:30 p.m.

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