Saturday, June 25, 2011

Corpse flower spectacular

The last few days have been exciting for plant lovers in our college town. On Thursday, a titan arum (Amorphophallus titanum) at UC Davis’ Botanical Conservatory started to bloom. This is only the 5th time a titan arum has bloomed at UC Davis, and I finally got a chance to see this extraordinary event in person. We arrived at 2pm, a few hours after the peak (around 9am this morning), but it was still an impressive sight. According to the docent at the Conservatory, they expect the flower to close by this evening, and that’s the end of it. Just four short days!

The titan arum, native to the steaming jungles of Sumatra, is considered to have the largest inflorescence of any plant in the world. The one I saw today was relatively small (maybe 4 ft. from soil level to the top of the spadix), but blooms inflorescences as tall as 9 ft. have been recorded.

The “flower” itself would be spectacular enough, but the main attraction is the smell. There is a good reason why the titan arum is nicknamed corpse flower or carrion flower. The smell is usually described as rotting meat, and it smelled exactly like that, with a fishy component to it. Very intense, sharp, nasty, and yet intriguing, considering it comes from a healthy plant, not a pile of rotting organic matter. The odor attracts flies and carrion beetles who in the process of crawling all over the spadix get covered in pollen which they then might carry to other titan arums in bloom nearby. Visit the web site of the UC Davis Botanical Conservatory for a good explanation of the process.

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UC Davis’ “Ted” on 6/25/11, 2pm

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Yours truly enjoying the fragrance
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Outside of spathe (the sheath surrounding the spike-like spadix in the middle)
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Inside of spathe; the white spike in the middle is the spadix
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Bottom of inflorescence
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View of the inside structures of the inflorescence. If pollination is successful, this is where the fruit stalk containing the seeds will develop. For an impressive sequence of photos showing the development of the fruit stalk, see this page on the UC Berkeley Botanical Garden site.
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Corm of a smaller titan arum (not of blooming size), with my hand for size comparison.
The corm of an adult titan arum of blooming size (~15 years of age)
might weigh 30-50 lbs or more.
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Stalk and leaf of another titan arum
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Stalk
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Stalk and leaf of another titan arum behind Ted’s inflorescence

According to Wikipedia, only about 100 titan arum blooms have been recorded in cultivation. Check out this detailed list.

If you ever get a chance to see of these plants in bloom, don’t miss it. It truly is something special. And if you’re interested in having something similar in your own yard, try a much smaller relative called Amorphophallus konjac. Four years ago I was given a handful of quarter-sized corms by a botanical student at UC Davis, and I planted them in our backyard against the street-side fence. Every year they’ve put up a stalk and leaf, and I’m hoping that in another couple of years they might bloom.

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Amorphophallus konjac leaf at UC Davis
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My own Amorphophallus konjac in our backyard
(you can see two different plants in this photo)

9 comments:

  1. Was Reba's VooDoo Lily a relative of this? Beautiful, but surprised that you could keep a pleasant expression on your face!

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  2. Dick: Rank has its priviledge!

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  3. You could probably take some of those seeds and grow your own. I thought about getting them, but they would probably struggle through the winters here.

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  4. Steve, from what I read, growing A. titanum is anything but trivial. It needs perfect growing conditions, including high humidity. I'm almost sure it wouldn't grow outside here; too dry in the summer and too cold in the winter. Apparently the corms are highly vulnerable to nematodes. There's got to be a reason why there are so few of them around :-).

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  5. Good timing Gerhard!! I've never had the chance to see one just on the right time, always a few days before or after when the flower has already collapsed.

    And you're a brave man getting that up close to the flower!

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  6. Wow again Gerhard your photos are outstanding. How cool that you were there seeing it bloom. I wish computers had a smellovision or something. And I went to the web site and watched the fruit develop. Very interesting and cool looking.

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  7. Wow, to be able to take a photo of the corpse flower at this stage of bloom. Definitely a once in a blue moon moment.

    - conservatories prices webmaster

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  8. I have the Amorphophallud konjac in my front yard. It never bloomed. Is it going to happen someday? do I need to do something special? I was able to plant a stinky flower in a pot once. Now I`m looking to get it from anywhere because it was beautifull and didn`t stink almost at all and it was not so big. I got it from the bahamas. Maha

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    1. I have three Amorphophallus konjac and they haven't bloomed either. It's simply a matter of time. The tuber has to be a certain size before it produces a flower. From what I recall reading, the plant has to be about 10 years old.

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