A Titanic Flower

By Susan Littlefield

The titan arum (Amorphophallus titanum) is one of the most spectacular plants around. This native of Indonesian rain forests grows from a corm that weighs over 200 pounds. Its flower is composed of a bloom stalk, or spadix, reaching as high as ten feet that's surrounded at its base by a three to four feet wide, frilly, bell-shaped cup called a spathe with a vivid maroon interior. Large doesn't mean long lasting, however. Three to four weeks after the bud tip first appears, the flower opens suddenly, with the spathe unfolding within a few hours, and then stays open less than 48 hours before collapsing.

While in bloom, it emits a powerful odor that has been likened to rotting fish with note of burnt sugar -- repulsive to us, but delectable to the carrion beetles and flesh flies that serve as pollinators in its native environment. This helps to explain another of the plant's common names -- corpse flower. To help spread its ″perfume″ the titan arum actually heats itself up by burning stored carbohydrates in order to volatilize its aroma and attract more pollinators. But the energy it expends in heat production accounts for its brief and infrequent blossoming, often with years going by between flowerings. If successfully pollinated, bright orange-red, cherry-sized berries are exposed when the spathe falls away. These are attractive to birds, which eat the berries and disperse the seeds inside.

When not in bloom, the titan arum maintains its titanic proportions, producing a single, umbrella-like leaf that can be 15 feet wide at the top of a thick stalk up to 20 feet tall in the wild. Only one gigantic leaf is produced each year, being replaced annually after a dormant period of about four months. It may take up to 15 years for plants to become mature enough to bloom.

Recently the corpse flower in the Department of Plant Biology's Liberty Hyde Bailey Conservatory at Cornell University bloomed. The entire flowering sequence was captured on time-lapse video. When the show begins, the spadix has reached its full height. Suddenly you see the spathe begin to unfurl -- surrounded by the hordes of people who braved the smell for a close-up view!

To watch Cornell's titan arum go through its bloom cycle go to: Cornell Cast.

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