Saturday, July 16, 2011

Amorphophallus titanum

Laura next to the Titan arum taken off of a webcam by Mark Hart
Opportunities for interesting events constantly surround us in Urbana. This weekend, there is an opportunity to see a titan arum (Amorphophallus titanum) that just began opening today at the University of Illinois Conservatory.

I've been visiting the conservatory everyday over the last week. The greenhouse manager, Debbie Black, has taken the time to talk and answer my never-ending list of questions. Over 700 people have gone through the conservatory this week. There are so many outlets for this information, a live video feed, facebook updates, and dedicated email lists. Debbie has been interviewed by numerous news agencies in the last week, even Modern Marvels is coming to film, and her voice is beginning to pay the price of popularity.

Today, with the anouncement of the malodorous flower opening, the numbers have just spun out of control. There has been a constant line of interested onlookers since the announcement of the flower beginning to open. With the first sign of the leaf unfurling around 3:00pm people have begun walking by holding their noses trying to avoid the pongy air.

This is a rare opportunity to view the world’s largest inflorescence native to Sumatra. The largest flower was measured at just over 8 feet. The U of I flower is opening after growing to around 42” or just shy of 4 feet. Just a babe in the world of titan arums.



Other than the size why the attraction?

Also known as the corpse flower, the flower got its name from the fragrance that it emits of rotting flesh. The tip of the flower (spadix) heats up at maturity causing the chemicals in the plant to emit a foul odor.

The leaf on this arum is long gone. After years of growing a tall leaf and going dormant again and again, each time growing larger, it finally sends up a flower to finish its life cycle. The spadix is wrapped by a green spathe that is dark maroon on the inside. It takes anywhere from 7-10 years for this plant to complete its life cycle and flower. There have been less than 100 of these flowers to have bloomed in the United States.

The titan arum at Illinois was a gift from Mo Fayyaz at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and has been diligently nurtured for 10 years by Debbie. For the first 5 years, Debbie was the only person allowed to water the plant. This was because they lost many other plants to over-watering in previous years.

The corm weighs in around 40 pounds. The native pollinators of this flower are carrion beetles and other insects. The titan arum needs pollen from another plant to fertilize it's flowers. In the greenhouse, Debbie will try to hand pollinate the flowers from two year old frozen pollen, and hope for fertilization to make new seeds for her collection. I hope to have an opportunity to help with that process and learn.

The flowers inside the Titan arum inflorescence are just visible at the base of the spadix inside the spathe.

Commonly asked questions:


How long does it flower?
From when the flower breaks ground to begin growing, to when it withers and dies back to the ground, the flowering process can take 3 - 4 weeks. It is only open and really pungent when, first the female and then male, flowers are viable and ready for fertilization. The inflorescence only lasts 1-2 days before the spathe begins to wilt.

What is the heaviest corm?
This plant's corm weighs around 40 pounds. The largest corm in the world weighed in at 200 pounds at Kew Gardens.

For more information see the following links:
Plant Sciences Conservatory
Kew Royal Botanical Gardens, Amorphophallus titanum (titan arum)

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