Created on Thursday, 30 May 2013 Written by SPENCER HUNT,The Columbus Dispatch
COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Joan Leonard describes herself as a roadie, an anonymous technician who helps set up and tear down the stages for rock concerts.
FILE - In this April 24, 2011 file photo, Nancy Clapper, of Columbus, takes a picture of the rare corpse flower as research assistant George Keeney, with the blue t-shirt, helps lead a group, at the Ohio State University Biological Sciences greenhouse in Columbus, Ohio. Researchers at an Ohio State University greenhouse are awaiting a rare second bloom by a rainforest plant known as a corpse flower because of its unpleasant odor. The university says the nearly 6-foot titan arum is expected to open this week, releasing another round of its rotting-flesh smell a little more than two years after it first flowered. (AP Photo/The Columbus Dispatch, Neal C. Lauron, File)
She is Ohio State University's greenhouse coordinator and oversees and nurtures thousands of plants, many of which figure prominently in research projects and biology lectures.
A day in Leonard's life is filled with planting, repotting and routine checks on the health and growth of more than 740 tropical, temperate and desert plant species. It's a role she has held and cherished for 26 years.
"I'm the behind-the-scenes person who makes it happen," Leonard said.
But the 49-year-old botanist is far from anonymous these days, thanks to a rare, endangered Sumatran flower that grows to ridiculous proportions and smells like rotting flesh. Her affinity for raising Titan arum has made her a rock legend in botany circles, attracting thousands of fans online and in person, waiting to see the fruits of her labor.
The plant, commonly called the corpse flower, can take as long as 10 years before it spreads its first titanic bloom, which lasts a few days. After it flowers, a plant can take as long as three years to build up the energy to bloom again. Some never bloom at all, instead simply making a leaf.
Getting one plant to bloom is a big deal. Two is huge. But four in three years, and two within a week of each other? That's incredible.
The bloom of Maudine on Friday night will closely follow that of Woody, which bloomed on May 14 — its second bloom in three years. Jesse bloomed last year.
"She is wonderful. She has such a green thumb," said Mo Fayyaz, a University of Wisconsin botanist and director of the school's greenhouse.
It was Fayyaz, a fellow Titan arum enthusiast, who gave Leonard the seeds to grow her corpse flowers. She has, in turn, shared seeds from her flowers with botanists in China, Missouri and Illinois and at the Smithsonian Institution.
Fayyaz has had a few multiple blooms, including one that sprouted two flowers from the same tuber. "The plant is really kind of strange," he said.
It's that strangeness that draws fans. Thousands of visitors have seen Leonard's work in the OSU greenhouse, which tops a campus garage on 12th Avenue.
Ohio State estimates that stories about Woody's second bloom reached more than 4 million people in the United States and abroad. That makes the OSU greenhouse program the university's most discussed non-athletic news item. And that's something that clearly pleases Leonard.
"Botanists get kind of a 'plant geek' title, and it's kind of a nerdy thing to get into," she said. "It's a little surreal sometimes that so many people find this as fascinating as I do."
Emily Yoders-Horn, the OSU greenhouse superintendent, said Leonard deserves all the praise and attention she is getting.
"She started these plants from seeds. This has been a labor of love for her for the past 10 years," Yoders-Horn said. "She's very passionate about this stuff."
Aside from a five-month internship at the Chicago Botanic Garden in 1986, Leonard's entire career has been spent running the greenhouse program at Ohio State. "Every day is a little bit different," she said. "You're watering plants, pruning, repotting, and we have different classes coming through and different research projects.
"Every day, something is growing," she said. "That's exciting."
Louis Ricciardiello, a retired oral surgeon, tends 300 Titan arum plants near his home in Gilford, N.H.
Ricciardiello said he has 20 plants that have bloomed or are about to bloom in coming weeks. But he said Leonard's work is just as impressive.
"My greenhouse is designed for this flower. They like it very warm and very wet and high humidity," he said.
"To find that medium where (Leonard and OSU staff) can produce that flower and still keep their other plants healthy, that's a significant achievement."