Stinking beauty

Flower power: Brandon Huber in­spects a White Ghost Cac­tus be­fore the judging be­gins at the Phil­adelphia In­ter­na­tion­al Flower Show. MARIA POUCH­NIKOVA / TIMES PHO­TOS.

— Brandon Huber’s ‘corpse plant’ is cer­tainly beau­ti­ful, but the prize-win­ning per­en­ni­al smells to high heav­en.

Brandon Huber has a tall plant with a purple flower whose fra­grance is death it­self. Fit­tingly, it’s called a “corpse plant,” and for the young North­east res­id­ent, its stink is the smell of vic­tory.

Huber’s amorpho­phal­lus kon­jac was awar­ded a Best in Show rib­bon in 2009, he said, and it’s among the 70 plants he’s ex­hib­it­ing this week at the Phil­adelphia In­ter­na­tion­al Flower Show at the Pennsylvania Con­ven­tion Cen­ter.

“It smells just like a dead body,” the Temple Am­bler stu­dent said Feb. 28 after an af­ter­noon of set­ting up his show dis­play. The exot­ic 5-foot-tall flower­ing spike, he said, had a light scent that day, but he ex­pec­ted it to be “in full stench” by March 1, the day be­fore the flower show opened.

A plant’s fra­grance, he ex­plained, at­tracts pol­lin­at­ors. In the case of his award-win­ner, the ca­da­ver­ous aroma draws car­ri­on beetles, bats and house flies.

“It’s pretty strong,” he said.

The corpse plant can be, er, ap­pre­ci­ated from 20 to 30 feet away, he said. People who en­counter it for the first time are a little put off by the odor, but they soon “just can’t get enough of it,” he said

This is the fifth year that Huber’s 10-year-old corpse plant, which is a nat­ive of Ja­pan, will be in the flower show. When it isn’t at­tract­ing at­ten­tion there, it sits on his patio dur­ing warm months as a single long leaf or re­mains dormant as a bulb in the base­ment of the Park­wood home he shares with his dad, Ron. The flower shoots out of the bulb in the winter, he said. 

The plant took a second place in the flower show this year, Huber said in a March 1 e-mail to the North­east Times. 

“In the first judging,” he wrote, “I won sev­en first-place rib­bons and an over­all total of 37 rib­bons.”

There are two ad­di­tion­al judging times this week, he said, and he’s hop­ing the “corpse plant’s” flower will be fully opened.

As exot­ic as it is, the plant isn’t really a lot of trouble, Huber said.

“It’s gen­er­ally pest-free,” he said. “And it really isn’t a dif­fi­cult plant to grow at all.”

Among his ex­hib­its at the show this year are be­go­ni­as, cacti and oth­er suc­cu­lents — plants that store wa­ter. His green thumb has grown some things he de­scribes as “pretty bizarre,” he said, in­clud­ing a eu­phor­bia that doesn’t smell like death, it just looks dead.

“It’s nev­er green,” he said.

The 23-year-old’s hor­ti­cul­tur­al in­terests blos­somed when he was in St. An­selm’s grade school, and his par­ents took him to the Flower Show.

“I star­ted col­lect­ing plants when I was in second grade,” he said. “When my par­ents took me to the show, I would go to the gift shop and bring a cac­tus home with me. I still have some of them today. Some are al­most 15 years old.”

Among the hun­dreds of plants in his col­lec­tion are car­ni­vor­ous Venus fly traps. He said he adds to his col­lec­tion by trad­ing with oth­er grow­ers. That’s how he got his corpse plant. Rare plants that take their time grow­ing can be costly, he ad­ded.

Huber con­tin­ued col­lect­ing plants through grade school and through his years at Arch­bish­op Ry­an High School. He’s now a seni­or ma­jor in Temple’s School of En­vir­on­ment­al Design’s Land­scape Ar­chi­tec­ture De­part­ment. He’s stu­dent gov­ern­ment pres­id­ent at Temple’s Am­bler cam­pus.

Huber is no stranger to me­dia at­ten­tion. He’s pre­vi­ously been writ­ten about in the North­east Times and The Phil­adelphia In­quirer and has ap­peared on TV news shows. He’s also been a guest on the pop­u­lar pub­lic ra­dio show You Bet Your Garden.

He’s been a Phil­adelphia In­ter­na­tion­al Flower Show com­pet­it­or since 2006.

“I thrive on the chal­lenge of it and the chance to push the plants to the lim­it, to see what I can do,” he said. “I’m the only big ex­hib­it­or my age com­pet­ing against le­gends in the hor­ti­cul­ture field who have been at it for dec­ades. The more you enter, the more you want it.”

By his own reck­on­ing, Huber’s taken home 150 rib­bons, half from the 2012 show.

Be­sides grow­ing exot­ic plants, Huber is also a back­yard garden­er.

“I al­ways liked be­ing out­side,” he said, and his fam­ily en­cour­aged his in­terests.

“By my early teens, I had free run of the yard,” he said, adding that he had a large plot in the com­munity garden at Ben­jamin Rush State Park. The gar­dens have not been planted, as the park is be­ing im­proved, but Huber said he hopes he can be back at his plot by late April.

One of the or­din­ary back­yard plants Huber has grown was a pump­kin, if you would call a pump­kin that’s more than 600 pounds or­din­ary.

It was the 2009 world re­cord hold­er, he said, but there have been pump­kins that were much, much lar­ger.

“Gi­ants like that are bred to be that big,” he said. Get­ting that size re­quires lots of land, wa­ter­ing and fer­til­iz­ing. And no mercy. A garden­er look­ing to grow a cham­pi­on can al­low only one pump­kin on a plant in a 30-foot by 30-foot plot.

“All the leaves be­come a food fact­ory for that one pump­kin,” he said. ••

The Phil­adelphia In­ter­na­tion­al Flower Show runs through March 10 at the Pennsylvania Con­ven­tion Cen­ter, 12th and Arch streets, Phil­adelphia.

Re­port­er John Loftus can be reached at 215-354-3110 or

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