The Amazing Amorphophallus – See It at HMNS!

July 6, 2010

The Cockrell Butterfly Center is pleased to present to you , for your viewing and olfactory pleasure: a celebrity among the plant community, the Amorphophallus titanum.

Measuring the Corpse Flower, July 3rd

Amorphophallus titanum, more politely referred to as titan arum or the corpse flower, has gained its celebrity status by having one of the largest, rarest, and smelliest flowers in the world. These flowers can reach heights of 7-10 ft and a diameter of 5-6 ft. Not only does the Titan arum boast the worlds largest unbranched inflorescence, its bloom is rare and unpredictable. This monumental flower bloom will be only the second recorded in the state of Texas, and the 29th in the United States.  However, in order to witness this rare spectacle, viewers will have to endure the epic stench that has earned this magnificent bloom the nickname, “Corpse Flower.”

See a full set of today’s A. titanum photos on Flickr

A. titanum, now endangered in the wild, is native to Sumatra, where it grows on limestone hillsides in rainforest clearings. A giant relative of our native Jack-in-the-pulpit and calla lilies, the species was first discovered in 1878 by an Italian botanist, Odoardo Beccari. It first flowered in cultivation in 1889 at Kew Gardens in London, England. The first flower in the United States bloomed in 1937 at New York Botanical Gardens. This event created such a stir that the police department had to be brought in to handle the crowds. Since 1937 there have been a total of 28 recorded flowerings at botanical gardens and universities across the United States, with the same plant very rarely blooming twice.

Can’t see the video? Click here.

The corpse flower grows from an underground corm, that can weigh as much as 200 lbs. Every year the corm shoots up a single branched leaf that looks more like a small tree, reaching heights of up to 20 ft, and then dying back again every winter. This process repeats until one year the corm is large enough and conditions are right. Then it shoots up a single giant inflorescence, which grows at an astonishing rate of 4 to 6 inches per day. Like a calla lily, the inflorescence consists of a central spadix (where the pollen and ovules are produced) surrounded by a leafy spathe.  Once fully opened, the yellowish spadix of the corpse flower heats up to near human body temperature and emits an eye-watering perfume that has been described as smelling like a decomposing carcass.  The spathe peels away from the spadix to reveal its inner surface, which is the purplish color of rotten meat.  This appearance and the strong, putrid odor function, in nature, to attract the carrion beetles that are believed to pollinate this smelly beauty. Although little is known about the process in the wild, it is speculated that the plant somehow traps the beetles for up to 24 hours to ensure successful pollination.

Amorphophallus titanum
Lois, at 50 inches tall!
Photo taken 7/6/10.
See a full set of photos from today on Flickr.

The entire flowering process takes a little over a month, but once opened, the flower is very short lived. In fact, the smell may only last for 8 to 12 hours, and the flower may begin to decline within a couple of days.  If the plant is successfully pollinated, the spathe will fall away first, revealing on the bottom part of the spadix the bright red fruits that contain seeds for new baby corpse flowers. Once the flower dies back the plant may not flower again for many years, if ever.

Eddie Holik, former director of horticulture for the Cockrell Butterfly Center, purchased the corm of our corpse flower from Plant Delights Nursery in 2004.  The corm cost $75, and was only about the size of a walnut.  Since then the plant has shot up 5 leaves, each one bigger than the year before.  We have weighed and measured the corm each year during its dormant period. This spring (2010), the corm weighed exactly 30 pounds and was 14 inches across.  In late April, instead of producing a leaf as usual, it began shooting up a flower bud.  The bud is currently 50 inches tall, and growing at a rate of about 5 inches per day. Judging by recorded growth rates and pictures from other titan arums that have bloomed, we are predicting that the flower will be fully opened late this week or early next week, i.e., around July 10 or so.  Keep checking the blog, as we  will update it daily with the most current predictions.

In keeping with the tradition of naming these magnificent flowers, we have named our titan arum Lois, in honor of Eddie’s mother, who worked in a flower shop and was an avid gardener.  Eddie credits her with being the inspiration behind his pursuit of a career in horticulture.

So please join us in the Cockrell Butterfly Center to witness this literally breathtaking, and possibly once in a life time experience.

Check out our previous post on the corpse flower to learn more about this unique plant.

Authored By Zac Stayton

Zac joined the museum in January after returning to Houston from a stint studying plants in Hawaii. He is the full-time horticulturist for the Cockrell Butterfly Center, and is in charge of daily maintenance and design for the rainforest exhibit. Zac specializes in tropical plants, particularly epiphytes, and his duties in the rainforest range from feeding all of the plants and animals to hand pollinating some of the tropical fruits, such as vanilla and cacao.

4 responses to “The Amazing Amorphophallus – See It at HMNS!”

  1. Bob S. says:

    Awesome can’t wait to see the flower bloom and to smell the stench.

  2. laanba says:

    I’m more excited than I should be at the opportunity to smell something horrific.

  3. Laurel says:

    Smell of rotting corpses, here we come! It’s pathetic how excited I am for this.

  4. Missy says:

    I’m curious — I realize Lois was named for Eddie’s mother, but, well, I mean, it’s a reeeeally nasty-smelling CORPSE flower! Perhaps he told her it was an orchid? LOL

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