20 years counting: one man maintains green house, secret garden

Carole Hodorowicz, Copy Editor


It’s the last place you would want to wear a grey shirt. Underneath the heat, your pores are powerless against the rays of the sun. You wonder how anything survives in here while you shirt becomes soaked with perspiration.

Steve Malehorn, manager of the H.F. Thut Greenhouse, is no stranger to this heat. In a white t-shirt, khakis, and a steady stream of sweat cascading down the side of his face, the Eastern Illinois University graduate has been in charge of maintaining the greenhouse and the Secret Garden for almost 20 years.

“There’s three of us who work in the garden: me, myself, and I,” Malehorn joked, giving credit to the vacuum he uses when cleaning the greenhouse.

One man is in charge of the 2,000 plants that occupy both the greenhouse and garden.

In the first room of the greenhouse, known as the general display room, lives the plants that star as the specimen in labs and classes, like sugar cane.

Ferns, aquatics, and orchids are amongst the plants that rule the shade room and cacti occupy the last room in the greenhouse.

But every plant is no match for the 12 foot tall, 15 feet wide corpse plant dominating the tropical room. The plant is one leaf, supported by a petiole, the stalk that attaches the leaf blade to the stem that is so thick it looks like a trunk speckled with fungus-like accents to ward off animals.

Every two years since 2008, the corpse plant has bloomed. With a spadix, a type of spike that grows in the center of the flower, which shares an appearance similar to a loaf of French bread and large, dark burgandy red petals surrounding it, the flower was 18 feet tall and 14 feet wide the last time it bloomed in 2016.

Although the flower is beautiful, there is a reason it bears the name “corpse.”

The stench of rotting meat radiating from the flower can be smelled from a mile away. One year, students on campus could smell the flower from the upper floors on the south side of Andrews Hall. Residents thought it was sewer gas.

Other victims of the corpse flower’s odor have compared it to roadkill in a dumpster.

“When it’s that intense it overwhelms your sense of smell—you can actually taste it when it’s that potent,” Malehorn said.

Malehorn has been battling with the corpse plant for years to break its reputation of being too stubborn to bloom.

The plant can go from 10 to 15 years without blooming, and Malehorn’s trick is simple: annoy it.

Stress is the catalyst for the plant’s blooming process, so Malehorn contributes by not giving the plant perfect soil or water.

Before he was annoying plants, designing The Secret Garden, and managing the greenhouse, Malehorn spent 20 years in the engineering field.

Malehorn worked at Channel 3, putting his degree in technical engineering and television broadcast from Lakeland to use for eight years.

In the mid ‘80s, Malehorn worked for NASA at Johnson Space Center, documenting astronaut training. After the 18 months of working there and being present during the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger, Malehorn decided to return to school to study botany.

Botany, the study of plants, always intrigued Malehorn. The lack of money and jobs in the field discouraged him, leading him to study engineering, but he returned to his roots after he left NASA.

He graduated from Eastern in 1991 and stayed to receive a masters in environmental biology. During his time as a graduate student, he wrote the manual instructing how to run the microbiology prep room.

Malehorn graduated in 1993 and has been managing the Greenhouse and building the Secret Garden since 1998.

Tours through the greenhouse are available to all who call or email Malehorn. The Secret Garden is open throughout the day, inviting students, locals, and anyone else who stumbles upon it.

Carole Hodorowicz can be reached at 581-2812 or [email protected].