Flower power

MARIA PUCHNIKOVA/ WIRE PHOTOS
Brandon Huber inspects a White Ghost Cactus before the judging begins at the 2013 Philadelphia Flower Show.

By John Loftus

Wire Staff Writer

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 Philadelphia 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 five-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 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.

“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 has continued collecting plants through grade school and through his years at Archbishop Ryan High School. He’s now a senior in Temple’s School of Environmental Design’s Landscape Architecture department. He’s also 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.

In 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 a pumpkin to 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.

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