My Little Stinky: Corpse Flower Cousin on Display at the Cockrell Butterfly Center

Meet Lois’s baby cousin, Amorphophallus paeoniifolius. It may not be as large or as smelly as the corpse flower (Amorphophallus titanum) that bloomed at the Houston Museum of Natural Science in 2010, but that doesn’t make it any less awesome! It’s blooming in the Cockrell Butterfly Center right now, and by the end of the weekend, it should be fully open and ready for a big debut.

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A. paeoniifolius bloom beginning to open. Photo by Soni Holladay.

Lois and this flower, also known as the elephant foot yam, are both Aroids, being of the Amorphophallus genus, characterized by the spathe and spadix floral structure and sharing the same distinct life cycle. The plant consists of an underground storage organ called a tuber, which differ in size and shape between plants and species.

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As the bloom began to open, we placed it in the CBC for our guests to observe. Photo by Soni Holladay.

When the conditions are right, A. paeoniifolius (pronounced pay-owe-knee-foe-lee-us) sends a single leaf out of the center of the tuber, which looks a lot like a small tree. The leaves typically have a tall, sometimes spotted or bumpy petiole resembling a tree trunk that branches out at the top to form leaflets. A paeoniifolius gets its name from the look of its leaflets, which recall the foliage of a peony plant. This leaf stage can last for several months — maybe up to a year — after which the leaf slowly starts to break down. It turns yellow, then brown, and eventually it falls over.

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The spathe will continue to open through the weekend, giving the bloom the look of a skirt around the central spadix. Photo by Jason Schaefer.

The tuber then stays dormant for between three and nine months. If the tuber is developed enough to support an inflorescence, or flower growth, it will bloom. The blooms of an Amorphophallus are spectacular at any size, though not as stinky. Size doesn’t matter as far as stench goes. We sometimes have smaller species blooming in our greenhouses that can make your nosehairs curl.

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This close, the bloom smells faintly sour, like dumpster garbage. Photo by Jason Schaefer.

As the plant continues to bloom, the spathe will widen and “collapse” open, giving it the look of a skirt around the spadix. Right now, it looks more like a collar. Come visit the CBC this weekend to have a look (and a smell) at this fascinating plant, on display right next to its larger cousin, currently in the “tree-like” stage of its life cycle.

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A. titanum. Photo by Chris Arreaga.

Editor’s Note: The A. paeoniifolius flower enjoyed a long weekend at HMNS, then moved on to the next stage in its life cycle. Look for updates on this flower, the corpse flower and other Amorphophallus species on this blog and in social media.

Because That’s How You Get Ants: Flooding Causes Displaced Critters to Run for Shelter, Too

Most of you probably didn’t make it in to work today, and after my short drive to the Houston Museum of Natural Science this morning, I would say that was a good call. There were plenty of cars stalled in intersections, and I watched a sixteen-wheeler make a U-turn on 288 because the water level was too high under an overpass.  

Expensive car repairs aren’t the only reason to stay home during the flash floods we periodically experience. When the water rises, it carries with it everything that is buoyant.  This could be trash that was thrown out a car window, chemicals that spilled from a car during an accident or were poured down the drain, or the critters that live under the soil and in the bushes.

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One of the most awesome and horrifying things you will hopefully never see during a flash flood is a raft of fire ants. These little guys instinctively know how to survive the catastrophic destruction of their home. They are light enough to float individually, but they stick together. This allows the ants at the base to hold up those above the water for a while. The roiling ball of ants turns constantly to allow every member of the ball to get a rest and to get enough oxygen. The ants at the edge are constantly looking for something dry on which they can cling. The instant they find a tree or a street sign, up everyone goes.

This is also horrific because sometimes that thing is you.

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The ants, which are pretty upset at this point, will absolutely swarm you if you touch this little ball of hate. They will get to the highest point they can and then they will latch on.  With their piercing mouth parts. 

So, my friends. While I applaud an interest in the out-of-doors and making new friends, please wait until the city isn’t flooded to engage in both. Because sometimes you pick your friends…

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…and sometimes they pick you!

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Editor’s Note: Learn more about the behavior of ants and other insects at the Brown Hall of Entomology in the Cockrell Butterfly Center. (When the floodwaters recede, of course.)

“I Have a Question! Where do Your Bugs Come From?”

When I’m maintaining the live exhibits in the Brown Hall of Entomology in the Cockrell Butterfly Center, or giving a tour of our Insect Containment Room, one of the questions I’m most frequently asked is, “Where do the bugs come from?” It’s a very good question! Many people ask if we are able to actually collect them, and I wish that were the case. Travel the world to collect exotic live specimens? Yes, please!

But the truth is we get our animals in boxes delivered by FedEx or UPS. The boxes come from all over the place. Arizona, Thailand, Costa Rica… But most of our exotic shipments come from the Penang Butterfly Farm in Malaysia, which collects and breeds butterflies and other insects and arthropods. They provide us with a large butterfly shipment each month and several arthropods throughout the year. Whenever our supply of large exotic insects is dwindling, I place an order for mostly beetles, but also katydids, mantids, and even centipedes or spiders.

We recently received one of these shipments, and I wanted to give you a sneak peek. I love getting these boxes. It feels like Christmas!

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This box transported five beetles, three large katydids, three mantids, two large spiders, and a few hundred butterflies!

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Each animal is packed carefully in individual containers with a moist sponge inside. Materials are placed in the box, such as soft filler and ice packs, to make sure the bugs stay comfortable on their long trip. They leave Malaysia on a Monday and arrive here Friday morning.

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The dead leaf mantis is nearly impossible to spot against a background of dead leaves.

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Until it moves!

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This dragon-headed katydid wasted no time finding a hiding spot! Katydids mimic leaves to keep them protected from predators.

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Giant long-legged katydids are the largest species in the world. They are a favorite around here!

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The giant golden orb-weaver has the largest and strongest web in the world. Although the web may sometimes accidentally ensnare birds or bats, the spider only feeds on flying insects.

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The orchid mantis has the most spectacular camouflage of all! They hide among orchid flowers waiting to grab unsuspecting pollinators such as bees and flies.

All of these and more can be seen on display in the Brown Hall of Entomology. Some can even be brought to your school for an exciting, hands on Bugs on Wheels presentation! See the HMNS website for further details!

Come to HMNS After Dark for a Sweet Surprise!

You may use artificial sweeteners in your tea or coffee, maybe even sprinkle some on your food, but there’s nothing quite like the miracle fruit to make sour foods more palatable. Just gnaw on one of these berries for a minute, let the juice coat your tongue, and for up to an hour, everything from plain yogurt to lemons to Sour Patch Kids taste just as sugary as Lucky Charms!

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Meet the berries of the miracle fruit plant (Synsepalum dulcificum). After eating just one, everything else tastes a little bit sweeter for up to an hour.

Here’s how it works: the berries of the Synsepalum dulcificum plant, which we cultivate in the Cockrell Butterfly Center at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, contain a protein named miraculin after the effect they have on your taste buds. The protein confuses the sensitivity of the sweet and sour-tasting areas of your tongue, tricking your mouth into thinking certain foods are filled with sugar. That’s right… If you munch a miracle berry, you can eat a whole pile of lemons without making a face! But be careful. Your tongue might be fooled, but your stomach will know the difference.

Because we’ve just harvested a crop of these miracle berries from our own miracle fruit plant, we’re offering an opportunity for you to try this magical plant out for yourself. Come to HMNS After Dark next Wednesday, March 30, from 5 to 9 p.m. and visit the booth outside the CBC to try a berry and experiment with its effects. We’ll give away both berries and snacks to sample along with them completely free to guests enjoying our new after-hours schedule!

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This is the seed pod of a cacao tree (Theobroma cacao), from which we make cocoa butter and chocolate. Inside this pod are fats, oils, and cocoa beans.

While you’re snacking, pop into the CBC to visit our incredible butterfly collection and see how other kinds of tropical fruit grow. You may now know it, but we grow papaya, pineapple, bananas, cocoa and coffee right here in the museum, along with several other kinds of exotic edibles! It’s another way you can learn about the interaction between pollinating insects and the plants that need their help to produce fruit. Check out these photos of fruit-producing specimens, taken right in our own rainforest!

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Coffee beans (Coffea arabica), not to be confused with cocoa, grow individually. Once the fruit is removed, the bean is roasted and then ground to make America’s favorite hot beverage.

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Papaya trees (Carica papaya) bear their fruit in a row along the main stem. Except for the yellow one at the bottom, these are still far from ripe.

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It looks like the large pineapple in back is sneaking up on the smaller one in front. Pineapple plants (Ananas comosas) are a terrestrial bromeliad.

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These red bananas (Musa acuminata) aren’t ripe yet, but they won’t grow much bigger than this. They’ll just turn red.

That’s it for the familiar ones. Have you heard of these three below?

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Yes, this is an edible fruit! It’s called Monstera deliciosa, which grows in Central and South America.

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The sapodilla plant (Manilikara zapota), bears fruit that looks similar to a kiwi, but is orange inside.

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The noni fruit (Morinda citrifolia), also known as the cheese fruit or vomit fruit, is edible, but it produces a foul odor that makes eating it quite unpleasant.

 

Some other fruiting plants in our collection aren’t producing at the moment, but are still worth a look. Keep your eyes peeled for the vanilla orchid, avocado, starfruit, rose apple, guanábana, and guava. Whatever you find, in the CBC at HMNS After Dark, you can definitely expect a sweet surprise.

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Our butterflies are some of the most spectacular on earth, and without them, many of these fruits would never reach maturity. So next time you’re at the CBC, thank a butterfly!