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!

The Amazing Amorphophallus – See It at HMNS!

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.

Don’t Stop to Smell the Rotten Roses

What would you say to someone who wanted to send you one of the biggest flowers there is? Would you want to stick your nose amidst its fragrant petals and inhale deeply, savoring the unique scent? Well, I absolutely would not. I’d wear a mask with a HEPA filter on it to avoid getting sick. You might be thinking that either I have the worst allergies in the world or that I have lost my mind. But you’d be wrong!!! The flower of which I speak is the aptly named Corpse Flower.

Indigenous to Sumatra, the rare and endangered Rafflesia arnoldi has petals roughly the same color as rotten flesh and emits an odor that smells amazingly like a dead body. Its impressive bloom can reach up to 3 feet in diameter, but only lasts for a few days.

Rafflesia’s colossal bloom is impressive, but it is unbelievably dwarfed by another corpse flower, the Amorphophallus titanum. Nicknamed the titan arum, this flower’s inflorescence (what looks like the big petal part) is a deep crimson shade, mimicking the hue of animal tissue and can reach a diameter of roughly 3 feet with a 10-foot circumference. They can grow up to 9 feet tall.  The tip of the titan also helps attract meat-eating insects by being very close to human body temperature, and can easily be 10°F hotter than the surrounding air temperature. Titan arum’s putrid aroma of spoiled, rotten meat can be detected by the human nose over a half a mile away.

Now, while these flowers’ stenches can be extremely off-putting to people, it is like an intoxicating nectar to certain species of insect. Usually, those bugs that are typically drawn to dead and decaying bodies are attracted to the corpse flower. A throng of flesh flies and carrion beetles cover the odoriferous plants and help them to pollinate.

I’ll leave you with one quick fun-fact about the corpse flower; indigenous people originally thought they were carnivorous because of the reek coming from the colossal bloom, so they chopped them down whenever they could to avoid being eaten.