People gather around to observe the first rare bloom of a titan arum, also known as the corpse flower, at Orange Coast College's horticulture department on Saturday. (Don Leach, Daily Pilot / June 21, 2014)

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  • Costa Mesa, CA, United States

Rick Harlow has been waiting to get a whiff of rotting flesh.

Harlow heads the horticulture department at Orange Coast College, which for the last 11 years has cultivated a titan arum — better known as a corpse flower.

The rare plant is named for the horrendous smell it emits when it blooms. It uses the stench to attract insects to pollinate the male and female flowers it holds deep inside a pod.

OCC's 4- to 5-foot-tall specimen is about to have its inaugural bloom.

"We smelled something for the first time," Harlow said Saturday afternoon.

OCC's corpse flower, dubbed Little John, was still closed Saturday afternoon, but the light scent seeping out indicates the smelly event is close.

Harlow and his colleagues were able to catch a whiff by examining the prehistoric-looking plant up close. They stuck their noses near fleshy leaves closed around a single protrusion sticking into the air like a thick green tongue.

"To me it smelled like rotten eggs," Harlow said.

The horticulture department doesn't know exactly when the corpse flower will open, but when it does, they'll have only a 24 to 48-hour window to pollinate it.

"It's on its own timeline," Harlow said.

The plant has been on display since Thursday in anticipation. The last time a corpse flower bloomed in Southern California was at the Fullerton Arboretum in 2007.

OCC will use pollen gathered from that plant and freeze the pollen they collect from this bloom to use years down the road.

The corpse flowers are so rare partially because they only thrive in jungle conditions like ones found in their native Sumatra, Harlow said.

"It's not an easy thing to grow," Harlow said. "You have to bare for it. You have to be committed to it."

Coincidentally, the man who started OCC's horticulture department and inspired professors there to obtain the corpse flower pod from the Huntington Botanical Gardens will miss Little John's first stink.

John Lenanton, a longtime OCC professor, is traveling at the moment.

"He would probably love to see this ... " Harlow said. "I don't know that he'd really appreciate that we named it after him."

The corpse flower will be on display at OCC's horticulture department through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Admission is free, but the college suggests a $3 donation to support the program.