back to news April 23, 2011

Titan Arum: a Blooming Miracle

Biological Sciences Greenhouse Coordinator Joan Leonard is as proud and pleased as any new mother. The seed she planted herself in late 2001 and nurtured for the past nine years presented her with a big, gorgeous "Easter Corsage," not what most people would want, but to Leonard, the putrid meat smell is as sweet as a rose!

Leonard named  her Titan, “Woody,” for the legendary Ohio State football coach, Wayne Woodrow "Woody" Hayes, himself a rare and wonderful breed.

Very few people can become the proud parent of the world’s largest, rarest and on-the-brink of extinction, blooming plant.

Titan arums are just that. In the wild, they grow only in the tropical rainforests of Sumatra. Even there, they have always been uncommon. Now, 70 percent of their habitat has been destroyed. On the threatened species list, many committed conservationists, like Leonard, are racing to save it from extinction.

For Leonard, it is a mission. “This is THE flagship species for a serious botanical garden or conservatory."

Since the first Titan bloomed at the New York Botanical Garden in 1937, fewer than 100 titans have bloomed in cultivation in the United States. In fact, only 35 institutions in the United States have been able to coax a bloom. Blooms are equally rare in cultivation worldwide.

This gigantic plant, Amorphophallus titanum, or “titan arum,” is unique and strangely wonderful. It is one of nature’s true wonders, boasting the plant kingdom’s largest known un-branched inflorescence (flower structure). The titan arum emerges from and stores energy in a huge underground stem called a tuber.

The plant’s blooming schedule is completely unpredictable; it usually takes several years for it to accumulate sufficient energy to summon the power to blast up a bloom. In cultivation, the average recorded height of an inflorescence is 5 feet; the largest, 9 feet, 2 inches. In their natural habitat, they can soar to 20 feet.

Periods of dormancy may last anywhere from three to nine months. When not shooting up a bloom, it will send up a single leaf, which can reach 15’ in height and have the girth of a man’s thigh.

The rarity of its flowerings, characteristic foul stench (it is also known as the corpse plant), and staggering size, make its blooming an event that always captures the public’s imagination. It is pollinated by sweat bees, carrion beetles and flies attracted by the rancid odor, which is said to be detectable from a quarter mile away.

Typically, Titans bloom for at most, three days, less if pollinated. Willing to abandon the extra day or so of blooming in the name of responsible conservation, Leonard has pollinated her plant, with pollen obtained from a recently-bloomed sibling at the University of Pittsburgh.

Our Titan Arum seed was obtained from the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Titan, “Big Bucky,” which first bloomed in June 2001. "Big Bucky" had been hand-pollinated with pollen preserved from a May 2001-bloom, named “Mr. Magnificent,” at the Marie Selby Botanical Garden.

Titan arums belong to the aroid family or Araceae. We may see some of its better-known relatives in our gardens: the Calla Lily, Peace Lily, Philodendron, and Jack-in-the-Pulpit.

Its ”flower” is actually many small flowers in one structure, termed an inflorescence. The plant has separate male and female flowers. The female flowers open the first day of bloom and the males open on the second day, preventing self-pollination. Titans are uncommon in cultivation and blooms are rarer still.

In 1878, the Italian natural scientist Odoardo Beccari discovered the Titan Arum during his exploration of Sumatra. Beccari collected seeds and sent them to the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, where he had once studied. Beccari was a contemporary of Charles Darwin; it is possible that they may have crossed paths during his time in England. The first bloom of this species in cultivation occurred at Kew in 1889.