You Asked – We Answered! Lois q&a

Lois, our corpse flower, has provoked most questions than perhaps anything we have ever had on display. And while we have been answering them on Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and during a live chat with Zac, one of our horticulturists, we wanted to place them in a central location to make sure everyone had access to the information.  Nancy and Zac have both worked on answering all your questions and have combined their answers into the blog below.

From Vanessa (submitted on Facebook)
Is the vase shape flower for these plants more common than the bell shape? Can the plant vary flower shape (one flowering vase shape, next flowering bell shape)? Can we get some information on your other corpse flower (does it have a name, how old it is, how the museum got it, where it is located, can it be seen by the public)?

Nancy: There seems to be a fair amount of variation in how much the spathe opens.  Some seem to open down lower (forming a bell shape) and some up higher (vase shape).  I would say that the bell shape is probably more common, and is certainly the “classic” form usually shown in illustrations.

We are not sure if the flower of an individual plant can vary in its shape.  I am going to hazard a guess that “maybe.”  This was Lois’ first bloom.  Often the first blooms are not as large or as smelly as subsequent blooms.  Also, they are often sterile (no pollen) – and this was the case with Lois.

Remember she is quite young and small – only 7 yrs old, a 30 pound tuber.  Bigger flowers like Perry (from Gustavus Alophus College, who bloomed at the same time as Lois) are typically from older plants with larger tubers.  Perry’s first bloom was in 2007 – and this year his tuber weighs 100 pounds – considerably larger than Lois.

Our second corpse flower does not yet have a name (it seems they are traditionally christened once they start to produce a bloom).  It is about 20 pounds now (the tuber).  We got it a few years ago from Stephen F. Austin State University (home of “Big Jack”).  It, like Lois, is normally kept up in our greenhouses where Soni (or greenhouse horticulturist) cares for them.  The greenhouses are not open to the public, sorry!

7.6.10 Amorphophallus titanum
A closeup of Lois’ spathe from very early in her blooming process. See a full set of Lois photos on Flickr.

From Sandy (submitted during our Live Chat)
Are you doing a time release video so we can see Lois’ growth and blooming?

Eds.: We are working on a time lapse video; ours isn’t quite ready, but luckily there are several that have already been posted: the Houston Chronicle’s time lapse , produced by Julio Cortez (@JulyThePhotoGuy aka #redshirtguy) as well as this one from the Associated Press.

From Michelle (submitted during our Live Chat)
What is Lois’s life expectancy?

Nancy: According to the literature and other experts, the life expectancy of a titan arum is about 40 years.

From Sara (submitted during our Live Chat)
What is the longest recorded corpse flower bloom? Is Lois setting records?

Nancy: How long a corpse flower blooms depends on when you start measuring it, I’d guess.  I.e., we first noticed that Lois was going to produce an inflorescence rather than a leaf this year at around the end of June.  From July 3 until she bloomed on July 23 she grew very fast (from 31 to 69 inches tall, and from 14 to 39 inches around), and you could certainly see the spathe and spadix as they developed.  But the actual “bloom” – i.e., when the female flowers are receptive and the males are shedding their pollen – happens in only 24-48 hours.  So no, Lois was quite normal and did not set any records.

7.10.10 Amorphophallus titanum
A closeup of Lois’ spathe a few days later. See a full set of Lois photos on Flickr.

From Marie (submitted during our Live Chat)
Would it be inappropriate to use the organic product “Hasta Gro” by Medina on Lois? I know it works well on the blooming plants I have used it on.

Zac: Hasta Gro would probably be a good fertilizer to use during the vegetative cycle. We have used Ocean’s Harvest organic fertilizer which is very similar. It is mostly fish emulsion and sea kelp.  We have recently heard from others who grow this species that fertlizer high in phosphates (eg., 15-30-15) is good to stimulate tuber growth.

From Carol (submitted during our Live Chat)
Where can I buy a corpse flower and how much would it cost me to put it in my greenhouse?

Nancy: You can buy corpse flower tubers from specialty nurseries (we got ours from a place called Plant Delights in NC) and probably also from private individuals who have collections.  Try searching for “Amorphophallus titanum tubers” online.  The cost depends somewhat, at least, on the size of the tuber.  Small tubers are cheaper than larger, older ones.  We paid $70 for ours six years ago, when it was walnut-sized. There are also several other Amorphophallus species available (e.g., A. konjac).

From Lisa (submitted during our Live Chat)
Do they ever have multiple flowers, or is it just one flower per plant?

Zac: A single tuber can only produce one single inflorescence, but the tubers can sometimes asexually propagate, and create multiple underground tubers, so if those tubers bloomed at the same time it could give the impression that one single plant was sending up multiple inflorescences

From Liz (submitted during our Live Chat)
How does the corpseflower get warm? What chemical reaction makes the heat and smell?

Nancy: Mitochondria-rich cells in the upper part of the spadix heat up to as much as 13 degrees celsius above ambient temperature.  This heating volatizes the pheromones produced by rows of sterile male flowers that are located inside the floral chamber immediately above the female flowers.  These pheromones apparently contain sulphur compounds.

7.11.10 Amorphophallus titanum
See a full set of Lois photos on Flickr.

From Allison (submitted during our Live Chat)
When you don’t have a special plant, what does the life of an HMNS horticulturist consist of?

Zac: We have two horticulturists on staff, a greenhouse manager, and a conservatory horticulturist. The greenhouse manager takes care of propagation, fertilization and pest control of nectar plants for the butterflies, as well as some for our biannual plant sales. She also runs a butterfly rearing operation out of one of the greenhouses.  The conservatory horticulturist takes care of the plants in the butterfly center rainforest, which includes adding new plants, fertilizing, pest management and even hand-pollinating some tropical fruits.

From Michael (submitted during our Live Chat)
Why is it so rare?  Is the flower not very strong and resilient?

Zac: The plant is rare because of deforestation in its native habitat of western Sumatra. It also doesn’t help that the flower has to be cross pollinated by sweat bees and two flowers blooming at the same time may be many miles apart.

7.13.10 Amorphophallus titanum [10 am]
Getting closer! See a full set of Lois photos on Flickr.

From Carolyn (submitted during our Live Chat)
What will happen to the flower after the bloom?

Zac: After the inflorescence, or bloom, opens, it will stay open for a couple days, and then begin to wilt; during the wilting process the underground tuber will take back some of the nutrients and energy that it used to create the giant inflorescence, and store it back in the underground tuber. Once this is done the inflorescence will completely fall away, leaving nothing but a dormant underground tuber.

From Linda (submitted via the blog)
I saw one corpse flower online that was very close to the ground and it looked as if there were other blooms coming in the middle. It did not have a spathe in the middle like Lois. Can you tell me about that?

Creative Commons License photo credit: Graham Racher

Zac: You probably saw a picture of a rafflesia. They are also referred to as corpse flowers, because they give off a very foul odor, and are also native to Sumatra. But they are not related and are in fact parasitic.

From Melissa (submitted via the blog)
Do they usually take about 10 years to bloom again?

Zac: The general rule of thumb is a Titan arum is capable of blooming for the first time after it reaches 7 years of age or 30 lbs. However, this does not mean it will bloom for certain. After the initial bloom they seem to take around 3 to 5 years to bloom again, but there is no concrete way of knowing.

From Justin (submitted via the blog)
I am curious about the decision to display Lois so soon and the ramifications that it may have had on her blooming. Do you think that by removing her from the greenhouse 2 weeks ago that it stunted her bloom and that the reason her bloom has the “wilt” characteristics is because the blooming process was impeded? If so, do you think that next time you will try housing her in a better environment before the actual blooming event? I think it is wonderful that Lois has been shared so much with the public, but there seems to be a lot of chatter online that the bloom has suffered because of the inadequate conditions of the viewing room. Is that true?

Nancy: Ideally, we would not have had to move the plant at all – but in order for people to be able to see her, we had to get her to a place more accessible than our rooftop greenhouses, which are not open to the public and where space is very cramped.  We wanted to move her before she got too far along/too tall.

What we are learning is that the first time a plant blooms, it is almost like a trial run for the plant.  Often the inflorescence is sterile (i.e., no pollen) – and this was the case with Lois.  Sometimes no odor is produced – and certainly Lois’ stench was much less pungent than I had expected.  I am guessing that maybe other things are also not fully developed – such as how much the spathe opens.  I am currently corresponding with other institutions that have had Titan arum blooms in order to see what their experience has been.  We are hoping for a much bigger show the next time Lois blooms (when she will be older and hopefully her tuber will be much larger).

7.14.10 Amorphophallus titanum [9 am]
Zac demonstrates how Lois’ spathe will open. See a full set of Lois photos on Flickr.

Sharon (submitted via the blog)
How is the staff going to do to protect themselves from the smell?

Nancy Lois’ odor was pretty wimpy this time – and this is apparently common in first-time blooms.  So this time, even at her stinkiest it was quite bearable to be in the same room with Lois.  We understand that these flowers can be quite pungent – in which case people use fans to disperse the scent, or don masks or air filters, etc.  If she was really potent we would certainly not go up to her and sniff deeply inside the spathe – as that apparently can be very unpleasant and even painful.  But this first time the odor was nothing to worry about.

From Ann (submitted via the blog)
Did you all think she would be this tall?

Nancy: We were very happy that Lois was this tall.  She is only 7 years old, and her tuber only weighs 30 pounds.  For her size, 69” tall was quite respectable.  Jack, who bloomed in Nacogdoches in 2004, was from a 26 pound tuber and was 64 inches tall.  Perry, who bloomed in Minnesota this year from a 100 pund tuber, was over 8 feet tall!  In a few years, when Lois’ tuber is larger, we will hope for a taller bloom.  The record bloom height in “captive” plants (i.e., not in nature) was nearly 10 feet, at a botanical garden in Germany.  Several others (Kew, Fairchild, etc.) have had 8 to 9 feet tall blooms.

Nancy (submitted via the blog)
I read on your information page about the plant that it is endangered in Sumatra. How many are held in botanical collections? Since it booms so rarely and unpredictably, wouldn’t it be good to pollinate it and see if you can increase the number of plants? I know it would close the flower, sad for us watching and visiting, but wouldn’t it be better for the plants?

Nancy: According to the records of publicized blooms of Titan arums, there are some 50 institutions world-wide (29 in the USA) that have had at least one plant of Amorphophallus titanum bloom since 1889 (since 1937 in the USA).  There are certainly many other unrecorded holdings, e.g., by private individuals.  Some of the botanical gardens actually have several individuals, so I would guess that the entire number around the world is several hundred plants.  Anyone with the money can acquire one of these plants as the tubers are available from individuals and specialty growers.

Regarding why we did not pollinate Lois – we were advised by the head of the botanical garden at Berkeley not to pollinate such a small, young plant.  Producing the flower, and then, if pollinated, the fruit, uses up a lot of the stored resources in the tuber.  He told us that sometimes small plants don’t recover and they die after fruiting.  We thus decided to enjoy Lois’ bloom without trying to pollinate her this time.  If and when she blooms again, hopefully when her tuber much larger, then we will attempt to pollinate her.  Interestingly, even if we had tried to pollinate her it might not have worked.  Her male flowers, at least, were sterile (no pollen was produced).

Rwl (submitted via the blog)
How do the plants propagate? If Lois were to be pollinated, would she produce seeds? What do they look like? How are they then distributed? Is there a corpse flower fruit (or fruiting body?)

Zac: The corpse flower can propagate asexually, from keiki developing off of the main tuber. Or if pollinated, the female flowers will develop into small red fruits about the size of cranberries, each containing 1-2 seeds. These fruits are then eaten by hornbills, and the seed redistributed across the rainforest.

7.21.10 Amorphophallus titanum [11 am]
Lois spathe begins to open. See a full set of Lois photos on Flickr.

Kara and Bella and Betsey (submitted via the blog)
Was it found as a seed or a plant, and how did it come to be in the museum?

Nancy: Eddie Holik, head horticulturist here from 1994 to Jan 2010, bought the tuber from Plant Delights Nursery in North Carolina.  He had seen photos of this plant at Kew Gardens and elsewhere, and knew that when it bloomed it would be an amazing thing for people to see.  Of course, we did not know when, if ever, it would bloom – but sure enough she did!  And, as they say, the rest is history…

Carol (submitted via the blog)
Regarding the fourth paragraph in “What’s Up with Lois” – how can you pollinate the flower before it opens? I thought that was the whole point of flowering – pollination. Did you tell her you weren’t going to pollinate, so now in a snit, she is not opening? Or do the dung beetles in the wild burrow in BEFORE the plant opens and the stink results from successful pollination? Just curious. Also, since you were talking about gasses – does all the carbon dioxide being breathed out by the multitude of visitors have any effect on her, or are you pumping additional oxygen in during the day to offset?

Nancy: First, regarding the CO2 levels.  Plants like CO2!  They use it and water to photosynthesize.  It’s my understanding that sometimes people try to elevate CO2 levels to get plants to grow faster.  Plants do take in some oxygen, but more importantly, plant PRODUCE oxygen as a byproduct of the photosynthetic process:  6 CO2 + 6 H2O = C6H12O6 + 6 O2 (i.e., for every 6 molecules of CO2 and H2O, plants produce one molecule of sugar and 12 molecules of oxygen.  Without plants, there would be no oxygen in the atmosphere.  So extra CO2 would, if anything, be good for the plant and not detrimental.

Of course we did not “tell” Lois that we were not going to pollinate her, nor did she get in a “snit.”  It seems that giving Lois a name has caused everyone to anthropomorphize her.

This is how pollination works in the titan arum.  The female flowers are hidden and protected inside the floral chamber formed by the swollen, fleshy bottom part of the spathe.  When they become receptive, the spathe loosens around the spadix.  At the same time rows of sterile male flowers release a strong-smelling pheromone designed to attract carrion-feeding insects. This odor is dispersed by the hollow top part of the spadix, which contains special heat-producing cells that help volatize the scent.  The odor brings in insects such as sweat bees, flesh flies, and carrion beetles that think they are going to find a nice piece of rotting meat in which to lay their eggs.  They arrive at the flower and squeeze through small openings where the spathe has loosened around the spadix.  Once inside they are sadly disappointed as there is no rotting carcass after all.  They are trapped inside the floral chamber for several hours, until the male flowers that are positioned above the female flowers and sterile male flowers release their pollen (by this time the females are no longer receptive, to avoid cross-pollination within the same flower).  The insects are covered with pollen as they leave – and not being too smart/having short memories, they go on to the next stinky flower, inadvertently carrying pollen on their bodies.  This pollen rubs off on the female stigmas of the next flower.

So – the noxious odor and the appearance (the purplish, liver color of the spathe) are basically the plant’s trick to fool carrion-feeding insects into pollinating them.  The odor diminishes considerably once the female flowers are no longer receptive (in only 8-12 hours).  Unlike bee-pollinated flowers, which typically lure their pollinators with a reward of nectar, corpse flowers don’t give any reward to their pollinators – it’s just a hoax.

7.21.10 Amorphophallus titanum [3 pm]
The inside of Lois’ spathe. See a full set of Lois photos on Flickr.

Keith (submitted via the blog)
When you opened the spathe to see the male and female flowers, like in this picture, what can you tell us about the development of those structures? I read that the female structures mature first, and then the male structures. Are either or both fully mature? Are they matured to the point where this flower should be opened already?

Nancy: Yes, the female flowers mature first.  The rows of sterile male flowers (the corn-on-the-cob like blobs you see above the female flowers) produce the stench at the same time the female flowers are receptive.  The male flowers are higher up on the spathe and are very small.  They shed their pollen about 24 hours after the females first became receptive (and the females are no longer receptive when their “brothers” shed their pollen).  However, Lois did not produce pollen this time (apparently common in first-time bloomers).

As far as we know there is no harm in opening a window in the floral spathe to expose the flowers, even if they are not receptive yet.  That is the only way the plants can be pollinated by hand, and every institution that has attempted to pollinate these plants does it this way.  Check out the post about “Big Jack” in Nagocdoches.

JayBay (submitted via the blog)
How is the corpse flower cultivated outside its natural habitat? What potting medium is used, how often must the corm be repotted and when? Does one begin with a huge pot or gradually increase the size as the corm enlarges? I can’t imagine what a job repotting must be! Does it prefer crowded root conditions in the wild too? What are the fertilizer, water, humidity and light requirements for these plants when grown inside? Does the leaf require support at maturity, and when is it removed when it goes dormant? Will HMNS eventually sell any of Lois’ seeds or corms to the public in the future?

Nancy: Titan arums are a little tricky to grow.  The tuber can rot very easily if it is too wet, and is also attacked by nematodes, mealybugs, and other pests.  The trick is apparently to use a very well-draining soil – the recipe we have is 2 parts peat, 2 parts sand, one part pumice or perlite, and one part decomposed compost.  The tuber should be buried 6 or so inches below the surface.  We have repotted ours every year after the growing season has ended and Lois goes back to being just a tuber.  We started her in a one-gallon pot, but since the pot should have a diameter of at least twice that of the tuber, we have increased the pot size every year as her tuber size has increased.  I am not sure if it prefers crowded root conditions in the wild.  Most of the roots emerge from the top of the tuber and are called “contractile roots.”  They serve to anchor the plant in place when it is producing its huge above-ground structures (either leaf or inflorescence).  These plants like bright light but not necessarily full sun.  They like heat and lots of humidity (remember they are from lowland rainforests).  They like a lot of water but only during the growing season – otherwise we keep watering to a minimum or not at all.  We have not had to support the leaf or the inflorescence; they are self-supporting.  The leaf should not be removed when it starts to die because in growing the leaf the plant uses up most of the tuber.  As the leaf dies, the tuber reforms.  The ideal fertilizer is one with a high phosphate content, to stimulate tuber growth (e.g., 15-30-15).

If and when we are able to successfully pollinate one of our titan arums in the future, we will consider selling tubers to the public.  Huntington Gardens has done this in the past.  The seeds need to be planted very soon after the fruits ripen, so plants that have already grown enough to form a tuber are much more likely to survive.  However, we don’t recommend that anyone but a very serious gardener, with a large greenhouse (since the leaf can eventually reach up to 20 feet tall) attempt to grow these plants.  As mentioned, they are not easy to grow and they need a lot of space.  We would also certainly offer excess tubers to other botanical gardens, as such places would be more likely to have the know-how and space to grow these unusual plants.

If you are interested in Amorphophallus, there are many other species that are easier to obtain and easier to grow – Amorphophallus konjac, for example.  While not as spectacular as A. titanum, these are also impressive and unusual plants.

7.22.10 Amorphophallus titanum [5 pm]
Full bloom! See a full set of Lois photos on Flickr.

Steph K (submitted via the blog)
How long has Lois been growing to get to where she is now (her first bloom)?

Zac: Lois is 7 years old. Six years ago we bought her as a one year old tuber that was about the size of a walnut.  This spring before she flowered, her tuber was about the size of a basketball and weighed 30 lbs.

Paige (submitted via the blog)
Does anyone know what the leaf feels like on the inside?

Zac: The inside of the spathe is very delicate and feels very smooth almost like velvet.

Cybil (submitted via the blog)
Where did you get Lois as a corm from? And where did the person you got Lois the corm from get it? It’s seems like Corpse Flower corms would be hard to come across.

Nancy: We got Lois as a tuber from Tony Avent at Plant Delight Nurseries in NC.  Tony was one of many people to get seeds from one Dr. Jim Symon, who collected titan arum seeds in Sumatra in the early 1990’s and distributed them to a number of botanical gardens and collectors.  It took Symon four expeditions before he found a plant that was in seed, so yes, it is not all that easy to collect seed from the wild.

Robin (submitted via the blog)
How much water does she get daily?

Zac: While she was still growing 4 inches per day, she was soaking up about 1 gallon of water per day.  But, as her growth slowed so did her water consumption and she ended up needing less than a half a gallon per day.

Tommie (submitted via the blog)
What happens to flower after she wilts, is there a way to preserve her in like a dry flower arrangement or in frame?

Zac: During the wilting process the underground tuber will take back some of the nutrients and energy that it used to create the giant inflorescence, and store it back in the underground tuber. Once this is done the inflorescence will completely fall away, leaving nothing but a dormant underground tuber.  Because the inflorescence is completely drained by the tuber, and the flower falls away in different stages, it would be very difficult and harmful for the plant to try to preserve the flower.

7.23.10 Amorphophallus titanum [7 am]
Full bloom! See a full set of Lois photos on Flickr.

@christiehale (from Twitter)
Why didn’t you choose to have Lois reproduce?

Nancy: This is Lois’s first time to bloom.  She is young and small (7 yrs old, 30 pound tuber).  Often the first blooms are not even fertile.  Flowering uses a lot of the tuber’s stored reserves, and fruiting uses even more.  We were advised by the head of the arboretum at Berkeley (they have several titan arums) not to pollinate her the first time around.  When she has a much larger tuber, perhaps next time she blooms, we may attempt to pollinate her (we will have to get pollen from another botanical garden – it can be frozen apparently.  Artificial insemination for plants!)

@LipServiceInk (from Twitter)
Did the #CorpseFlower plant inspires the movie ” Little Shop of Horrors ” ?

Zac: Although Lois and Audrey II are both large alien looking flowers, I do not believe the Amorphophallus titanum was the inspiration for “Little Shop of Horrors.”

@ouisie245 (from Twitter)
If you had planned to pollinate Lois would there be a specific time during blooming that it has to be done?

Nancy: Yes, if we had planned to pollinate Lois we would have had pollen shipped to us from one of the other botanical gardens that have collected pollen from their titan arum(s).  We would have used a small camel-hair brush to brush the pollen onto Lois’s stigmas, during the time they are receptive (i.e., during those 8-12 hours when the spathe first opens up and the plant is at its stinkiest).

@Ms_Latidah (from Twitter)
How long before Lois will bloom again?

Zac: The general rule of thumb is a Titan arum is capable of blooming for the first time after it reaches 7 years of age or 30 lbs. However, this does not mean it will bloom for certain. After the initial bloom they seem to take around 3 to 5 years to bloom again, but there is no concrete way of knowing.

Does it have any medicinal uses? Is it edible? Do insects like eating it?

Zac: I am not aware of any medicinal uses, but in talking with people from Indonesia, I have found that the tuber of Amorphophallus paenoniifolius (not A. titanum, because it’s endangered) is commonly eaten. It is starchy, and orange in color, and referred to as Elephant’s foot yam, or in India it is sold under the name Suran. In the wild the tuber is more commonly damaged by fungus than by insects.

To the Corpse Flower Community: Thank you!

Fittingly, it was Lois herself – or rather, her Twitter alter-ego @CorpzFlowrLois, that said it best: the most amazing part about Lois-mania was that she “connected a community of newfound botany enthusiasts.”

Along with all of the other staff from across the entire museum that came together to keep the place open 24 hours a day for almost 2 solid weeks – I was totally blown away by and extremely grateful for the outpouring of love from the Houston community for our not-so-little Lois. During the height of Lois’ bloom, more than 5000 people were watching her on our webcam (generously hosted through Rice University) and tweeting about her every move (or lack thereof). As of  Sunday, July 25, more than 68,000 people had come to the museum to visit Lois in person – and that number continues to grow, even as she returns to a dormant state.

7.23.10 Amorphophallus titanum [7 am]
Thank you for sharing your enthusiasm with us!

Amazingly, Lois spawned a few minor internet celebrities. There was Zac, dubbed our “hot-iculturist” by the Houston Chronicle, who joined twitter (@hortzac) by popular demand, and who now has a fan-generated Facebook page “Horticulturalist Zac Stayton Needs A Show on TV.” And, of course, there was #redshirtguy – Chronicle Reporter Julio Cortez – so dubbed because he wore a red shirt the first day that he blocked the view of Lois on the Museum’s webcam while setting up his own time-lapse camera – spawning outraged Twitter-shouting to get him to move as well as many calls to the Museum alerting us to this fact – and then a daily vote to determine what color shirt he would wear for each day’s visit. And of course, @CorpzFlowrLois, the brainchild of CultureMap assistant editor Steven Thompson, who garnered more than 2000 Twitter followers in just over a week. There’s even a fan-generated group on Facebook for those suffering from Lois withdrawal now that she has finished blooming.

She inspired two songs (“Hey Lois” by Danny Osterwisch and “Ode to Lois” by HMNS Moran Ecoteen Kelsey Williams), a twitter-generated, crowd-sourced Lois playlist organized by @jvconcep, 50+ corpse flower haiku, as well as some incredibly creative costumes. She even almost crashed a wedding.

This is all just *so* beyond the realm of what we science geeks are used to, that we’re still walking around feeling giddily lucky that Lois decided to bloom this summer, and also rather dazed by it all.

And the blog posts! It was fascinating to read about what Lois meant to the people who came to see her – everyone seemed to walk away with a different interpretation. These are just a few of our favorites:

For Karen (@chookooloonks) – an incredibly talented photographer who features flowers on her blog quite frequently – “Take a photograph of an Amorphophallus titanum in full bloom” was on of her life list – and she followed Lois’ entire blooming process closely, culminating in her post “photograph a corpse flower in bloom? CHECK.” Perhaps most moving, though, was her “Love Thursday” post, in which she ruminated on the corpse flower community – and why it’s sudden appearance is one of the things that makes Houston such a special place to live. (WARNING: if you follow the Love Thursday link, you *will* see a giant picture of my face. I’m not gonna lie – I quite like it and was honored that Karen included me in her 1000 Faces project (Zac, too!) – but I”m pointing you there solely for the wonderful writing and the sentiment expressed.)

Ed (@etee) wondered whether all the mania surrounding Lois was worth it; check out his conclusion in the post and leave a comment to share your thoughts!

I also love Ed’s final comment on the post, that “Lois was responsible for the ‘creation’ of 3 new local celebrities: @HortZac, #RedShirtGuy, and @CorpzFlowrLois. Three celebrities, not because they can play a sport, or make a film, or due to being part of a human train wreck, but because of a flower. And, because they were good at what they did. A horticulturalist, a photojournalist, and an online media editor. What role models for our kids to follow!” [Emphasis mine]

@divamover was “Obsessed with @CorpzFlowrLois” and I loved her description of the allure: “What is so interesting about a big, stinky plant?  Lois is captivating.  Disturbing.  Every “Attack of the Pod People” and “Aliens” fantasy or joke you can think of, all rolled into one. “

@saroy told us why she loves science – and it’s not just about Lois!

@adriannerussell shared her Lois obsession in the post “Funky Love” on her blog, Cabinet of Curiosities (love that title – and the current post, “nonprofit nerd reads“)

In “Lois and Me,” @pjholliday shares how through Lois, she “finally found a use for that silly new craze of sharing with the world your every move and thought,” on Twitter. It’s a beautiful post that culminates with the fact that she was “awe-struck by the beauty and unpredictable nature of Mother Earth, and re-awakened to the necessity of protecting our precious, finite resources.” Seconded!

In “Life After Lois,” @megsalice – who saw Lois 5 times in 2 weeks – pointed out one of the unexpected benefits of keeping the Butterfly Center open around the clock – the opportunity to wander the rain forest at night! Check out this post for some lovely night shots of the butterfly center.

In several posts for @planeteye, @snowcones covered Lois entire life cycle and coined perhaps the most-descriptive (and also my personal favorite) hashtag: #FUNKWATCH.

There were many, many more people who posted about Lois – if you were one of them, please share a link with us in the comments!

Totally blown away by the crowds that showed up to meet @hortzac and @corpzflowrlois –
at midnight! More tweetup photos from etee

In the end, the most amazing thing about Lois wasn’t the rarity of her bloom, the extended waiting game, or even the smell – though these were all amazing – it was all of you: the people who blogged, tweeted, facebooked and just generally shouted and shared your excitement, questions and knowledge with us, who came here in person to experience this time of “silly joy” (to borrow a phrase from the ever-fabulous Karen of Chookooloonks) and support science education in your community. I feel honored and humbled to have been a part of this incredible experience and I hope you’ll continue sharing your love of science and the community with us as we wait for Lois to bloom again.

Though generally exhausted, I know we are all absolutely thrilled to see such an outpouring of enthusiasm for something so solidly science-based and continue to hope that many of the very enthusiastic kids who came to see Lois will have a spark of scientific inquiry ignited in their minds. Thank you to everyone who supported the museum in any capacity: following along online, spreading the word, coming here, seeing Lois, becoming members, geeking out with us, buying buttons and wearing t-shirts – it would have been extremely heartening in any time.  But please know that because this crazy-wonderful thing happened now – a very tough time for the museum industry as a whole – you’ve done immense good both in helping us to continue our efforts for science education in the Houston community and also in simply inspiring us all to keep moving.

To everyone who followed along with Lois and helped generate a level of enthusiasm that made all this possible:


The Man Who Made Fossil Fish Famous

Our Archaeopteryx show has bedazzling fossils – the only Archaeopteryx skeleton in the New World, complete with clear impressions of feathers. Plus frog-mouthed pterodactyls, fast-swimming Sea Crocs, and slinky land lizards. Today we learn about the Louis Agassiz and his theories.

Louis Agassiz (1807-1873)

Paris and the Lure of Fish, 1836
Agassiz grew up in Switzerland where he excelled as a student in  chemistry and natural history. He went to Paris to study fish fossils under the Father of Paleontology, Baron Georges Cuvier. The geological history of fish seemed muddled at the time. Agassiz brought order to the fins and scales.

“There’s order in the way fish changed through the ages…” Agassiz concluded. He was the first to map out the long history of fish armor, fish jaws and fish tails.

1) The earliest time periods, the Paleozoic Era, most bony fish carried heavy armor in the form of thick scales covered with dense, shiny bone.

2) In the middle Periods, the Mesozoic, the armored fish became rarer and were replaced by fish with thin, flexible scales.

3) In the later Periods, the Cenozoic, thin-scaled fish took over in nearly all habitats.

4) Today, the old-fashioned thick scales persist only in a few fresh-water fish like the gar.

5) Tails changed too. The oldest bony fish had shark-like tails, with the vertebral column bending upwards to support the top of the fin. Later fish had more complicated tail bones, braced by special flanges, and the base of the tail was more symmetrical.

6) Jaws in the earliest bony fish were stiff, like the jaws of crocodiles. Later fish developed jaw bones that could swing outwards and forwards.

Discovery of the Ice Age
As he traveled across Europe, Agassiz saw evidence of giant ice sheets that had covered the mountains and plains. According to Agassiz’s theory, New England too had been invaded by mile-high ice layers. Giant hairy elephants – woolly mammoths – had frolicked in the frigid habitats. At first,  scholars harrumphed at Agassiz’s idea of a Glacial Period.  But by the mid 1840’s the theory was proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

Boston 1846: Toast of the Town & the New Museum
Fish and glaciers made Agassiz the most famous scientist of his time. When he came to Boston in the 1846, his lectures were so successful that the New England intellectuals wouldn’t let him leave. Poets and politicians, rich merchants and artists all helped raise funds to get Agassiz a professorship at Harvard. He repaid the support by working tirelessly to build a grand laboratory of science and education at Harvard – the Museum of Comparative Zoology. Opened in the 1859,  the MCZ has been a leader in fossil studies ever since.

Design in Nature
Agassiz’s interests spread beyond fish and glaciers. He sought the Plan of Creation, the key to understanding all of Nature. Was it  Evolution? No. Agassiz rejected any notion that natural processes somehow had transformed one species into another. He was a fierce exponent of the theory of Serial Creation: every species of fossil creature was created to fill its ecological role in its special geological time zone.

Darwin and Agassiz
Though he fought Darwin’s theories for his whole life, Agassiz’s work in fact provided support for the new views of evolution. The long trends in fish fins and scales were best explained by Natural Selection. Agassiz’s best students at Harvard went on to become strong supporters of Darwinism.  Endowed faculty positions were established in Agassiz’s name.  Agassiz Professorships were given to Alfred Sherwood Romer, the greatest Darwinian  paleontologist of the 20 century, and to Stephen Jay Gould, the most eloquent defender of Darwin in the last thirty years.

Don’t miss Archaeopteryx: Icon of Evolution, currently on display at HMNS. To read more about Agassiz and Darwin, check out my earlier blog.

Beauty is in the eye – or sometimes nose – of the beholder

Ed. Note:  Photos and links for the post were contributed by Zac Stayton

The amount of interest generated by the recent opening of Lois the corpse flower, aka Titan arum or Amorphophallus titanum, was phenomenal.  Some of Lois’s fans and followers have expressed concern that she may not have opened fully and that this meant something was “wrong” with her.  We have looked at lots of photos of other corpse flowers and we have to disagree.  Flowers, like people or any other living organism, have natural variation.  Some people are tall and skinny, some short and wide, some have dark skin, others white.  The same goes for dogs, elephants, sunflowers, and corpse flowers.  Diversity is the spice of life, and the foundation for the evolutionary process!

7.23.10 Amorphophallus titanum [7 am]
More photos available in our Flickr set

Here are links to photographs of other Titan arums.  You will note that some look very much like Lois, with a tall, narrow spathe that does not open out very wide, resembling an elegant vase.  Others have shorter, wider spathes and look more like upside-down bells – Perry, who recently bloomed in Minnesota, was this type.  Still others are more funnel-shaped, with the spathe not folding outwards much at all, such as this specimen that recently opened at Huntington Gardens

The spathe can open from either the right or left hand side, depending on how it is wrapped around the spadix.  Color, too, can vary, ranging from a deep, midnight purple that in some lights looks black, to burgundy or maroon.  The spadix can vary in height, thickness, and color as well (Perry’s spadix looked as if the top had been punched in).  Whatever their appearance, all corpse flowers are amazing and in their own strange way, beautiful! 

The most popular images on Google are of the bell shape, and this is the form often used in illustrations of the plant. All of us expected Lois to be the classic shape and color especially since she had never bloomed before. However, in nature the pollinating insects don’t care – they are homing in on the pungent odor.  Rotting carcasses vary in size and appearance too – but they all stink!