Visit Savage Garden for a glimpse at some of nature’s nastiest plants

In case you thought plants were not much more alive than a rock, think again! As David Attenborough pointed out in his wonderful series, The Private Life of Plants, plants have many behaviors as complex and interesting as those of animals. The problem is, plants move much more slowly, making their behaviors and reactions harder for us to appreciate.

During the month of October, the Cockrell Butterfly Center is celebrating Halloween with Savage Garden, bringing attention to some interesting things plants do. If you visit during that time, be sure to check out the map at the entrance and look for the purple signs scattered throughout the main floor of the rainforest.


You’ll be introduced to plants much older than the dinosaurs (Ancient Plants),


plants that protect themselves with spines, thorns, and prickles (Spiky Plants),


plants that defend themselves chemically (Delicious, or Deadly?), plants that heal us (Medicinal Plants), plants that use ants as bodyguards (Ant Plants),


plants that eat insects (Carnivorous Plants),

5 1

plants that come back from the dead (Resurrection Plants),


plants with really putrid flowers (Stinky Plants),


and last but not least, a Miracle Berry plant (False Sugar). 

This is only a small slice of the interesting things plants can do. They have all sorts of adaptations to make more of themselves (via pollination and seed dispersal) and to move from one place to another (seed dispersal and crawling vines, etc.). Some of them can travel through time, with seeds that remain dormant for dozens or even hundreds of years. The protective chemicals of some toxic plants don’t necessarily have to be eaten, either – think about poison ivy. Urushiol (the chemical that causes the extremely uncomfortable blisters in some of us) is a powerful deterrant to humans. Yet birds gobble poison ivy berries with no ill effect!

Even stranger than the above behaviors is the discovery of inter-plant communication. Ecologists have known for a while that plants can “tell” other nearby plants of the same species that they are being attacked by insects via airborne chemicals, and the “listening” plants can then beef up their own chemical defenses. But according to recent studies, plants have other means of communication, some using underground networks of mycorrhizal (fungal) connections that network plants of many different species, and others apparently even making sounds! Check out this interesting article on “Plant Talk” by Dan Cossins in The Scientist

We don’t have any of these “talking” plants (that we know of) in the Butterfly Center, but please visit us in October to learn more about some of the other totally wicked things plants do in Savage Garden! #ChillsAtHMNS

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.

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.