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The corpse flower at San Antonio's Zoo isn't blooming. A life coach says we can learn from its story

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Bri Kirkham
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Texas Public Radio
The spadix of the corpse flower at the San Antonio Zoo seen sagging on July 19, 2022.

The San Antonio Zoo — and fans across the city — were on watch for weeks waiting for the endangered corpse flower’s once-in-a-decade bloom. But that didn’t happen. Even though the flower is still healthy and alive, it will not produce a bloom this season.

Most botanical institutions or zoos have to wait five to ten years before a corpse lily will produce a flower. But at the San Antonio Zoo, they waited just a few months after receiving theirs from California before they noticed it changing.

Danté Fenolio, PhD, vice president of conservation research at the zoo, felt ready to help the flower bloom. “We finally got our specialized greenhouse in place, and all the conditions were right, and all the equipment was right, and the temperatures were right,” he said.

He said the structure of the plant is called a corm. And while their flowers aren’t that large themselves, they have the largest blooms in the world.

When the zoo posted on its Facebook and Instagram pages that it was expecting a corpse flower bloom, the public was excited to follow along. Each update posted about the flower had hundreds of comments and shares. The zoo even set up a live stream for fans to stay on “bloom watch.”

But why are people so interested in the corpse flower, which smells like rotting flesh when it’s in full bloom? That’s how it got its name.

“The response has been overwhelming,” Fenolio said. “When something this rare happens at an institution dedicated to conservation, people from all around the world take a look. And because we have the internet. … I think this traveled far and wide.”

This particular flower was nicknamed — thanks to a Facebook poll — "La Llorona," after the ghost story of a woman who drowned her children and later herself in the river. The tale goes that she haunts the river on the lookout for more children.

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Courtesy San Antonio Zoo
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Ballet Folklorico Sol de San Antonio performs a La Llorona traditional dance with the corpse flower at the San Antonio Zoo. This particular flower is nicknamed La Llorona, "The Weeping Woman," from Mexican folklore.

As bloom watch for La Llorona the flower continued and thousands of viewers tuned in, the staff at the zoo realized something. The spadix — which is part of the plant — was starting to sag.

“At some point the team got together and we sort of realized that this bloom wasn't going to finish its cycle. But it's not anything that we were particularly concerned about because the plant itself is fine,” Fenolio explained.

La Llarona is alive and healthy, but it won’t bloom anytime soon. And there isn’t a singular or known answer as to why.

When the zoo posted this update, President and CEO Tim Morrow said, “Beyond a life cycle lesson, this experience can also serve as a general life lesson that even though you may not succeed on your first attempt, it doesn't mean you are a failure — you can still bloom in the future!”

The response was overwhelmingly positive.

One user wrote, “It's okay, La Llorona… Don't compare yourself to the other flowers on Plantbook who are only posting their brightest blossoms. They've all wilted from time to time themselves.”

Coincidentally, zoos and botanical institutions across the country and in Europe have their own corpse flowers which are in bloom right now.

“It turns out that somehow there's a psychic network between corpse lily plants, and they all seemed to get on the same same path. And there are several other blooms, I have been told of, getting ready to open up,” Fenolio said.

But La Llorona will have its chance, too.

Shakiya Gadson is a life coach in San Antonio who helps people move on from trauma and toward new experiences.

“From what I understand, flowers and what I know of them, they're very temperamental just like people. … Like, so many people are not blooming or saddened by things that are happening in the world. And we pick up on that energy,” they said.

This could also be an opportunity to give San Antonians something to look forward to. For example, Gadson said they didn’t know about the flower before, and now they’re excited about it.

“But now that I know like, oh, every 10 years, like this is something cool, you know? You make it more accessible for other people to learn and be a part of the process. So, it may have been a blessing in disguise,” Gadson said.

For now, La Llarona gets to take a break. Fenolio explained what comes next:

“We're going to say, ‘You know what, you did a wonderful job, but now it's time to take some R&R.’ We're going to let this corm put up a leaf. Have a great time in this highly specialized greenhouse. Grow, enjoy some fertilizer, a little bit of sun, a little bit of water. And a few years from now, La Llorona. We'll be right back. And she will open up and produce a beautiful bloom for San Antonio.”

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Bri Kirkham can be reached at bri@tpr.org or on Twitter at @BriKirk