A tropical plant discovered in 1878 in Sumatra, Indonesia.
Is it the largest flower in the world?
No, actually it is the largest non-branched inflorescence. An inflorescence is a cluster of flowers—you may think of it as a bouquet. The plant that produces the largest single flower in the world is a member of the genus Rafflesia in the Euphorbiaceae family. Rafflesia arnoldii produces a single flower that is a meter (a little over one yard) wide. Rafflesia is also from the rainforests of tropical southeast Asia and Sumatra and Borneo in the Indonesian Archipelago. Like the titan arum, Rafflesia arnoldii is difficult to find and flowers rarely.
So if it is an inflorescence, then there must be a bunch of flowers—where are they?
The inflorescence of the titan arum is composed of two parts. The outer purple vase-like sheath is called the spathe. It protects the inner tube-like structure called the spadix, and its meat-like color serves to attract pollinators. The flowers are small and located on the spadix; there are hundreds of flowers hidden beneath the spathe.
If there are a bunch of flowers on the spadix, how come I don’t see a bunch of flower petals?
There are no petals on these flowers. Petals are advertising devices used by flowers to attract pollinators. Petals are especially important to plants like dandelions, lilies, and tulips to attract pollinators that depend on a visual stimulus to locate pollen and nectar in flowers. The titan arum uses another ploy to attract pollinators: it produces an odor that resembles that of rotting flesh. Flies and carrion beetles, in particular are attracted to the smell of rotting flesh, and many plants whose flowers produce such odors are fly-pollinated. The lower portion of the spadix is red and resembles rotting flesh.
What causes the foul smell?
The major components detected in the carrion and gaseous odors are the sulfur-containing compounds dimethyl disulfide and dimethyl trisulfide.
Why is this flower so big?
In the dense jungles of Sumatra a small inflorescence that relies on aroma to attract pollinators would have a difficult time spreading that aroma and attracting pollinators. The bigger the inflorescence the more successful it will be in spreading the aroma and thereby attracting pollinators. A brilliant strategy for a stationary plant! Even better is that the plant actually uses energy reserves to warm itself up to temperatures comparable to human body temperature. The warmth allows the compounds in the odor to volatilize more easily. So in other words, the warmer the titan arum gets, the stinkier it gets. (Think about the aroma of fresh baked bread. It is especially fragrant when it is hot out of the oven.)
What pollinates the titan arum?
Folklore speaks of elephants pollinating the titan arum, but we know now that it is much smaller organisms—flies, carrion beetles, and sweat bees. It is not known with certainty what pollinates the titan arum, but it has been observed that sweat bees are likely pollinators.
How is this inflorescence pollinated?
Here is another wonderful adaptation of the titan arum. The female flowers are on the bottom of the spadix and are red and open first. The male flowers are on the top of the spadix, opening later. Because the male and female flowers open at different times they do not pollinate themselves. Now here comes the cool part: Think about flies trapped inside a window. They tend to fly to the bottom and crawl to the top of the window. Pollinators fly to the lower portion of the spadix and then crawl upward. As they do so they pick up pollen and then fly off to a new titan arum starting at the bottom again where they cross fertilize a second titan arum with pollen from the first!
Why is it so rare?
Some plants like the titan arum are naturally rare. Lady’s-slippers in Minnesota would be examples of plants that are naturally rare. However the titan arum now faces two significant threats—collectors and, more critically, deforestation.
Where are the leaves?
The titan arum produces one leaf at a time for several years. The leaves start out small and get progressively larger. The leaf photosynthesizes and allows the plant to store energy in a large underground tuber. Each leaf lasts about a year before dying back and going dormant. Because flowering takes so much energy, it takes several years (10+ years) of just producing leaves and storing energy before the plant has enough reserves to produce a flower.
Who spreads the seeds?
The seeds are quite large (marble-sized) and are eaten and spread by tropical birds called hornbills. Attracted by the fleshy covering, the birds eat the seeds and excrete the inner seeds.
What is the “nickname” of this titan arum?
After discussion among students, staff, and faculty members, it was decided that it should be named after one of the Titans. This was somewhat problematic, since many of the Titans were not particularly good. This is Minnesota, after all, so “nice” is, for many, a desirable quality. We settled on “Hyperion,” the Titan associated with intellectual activity and observation, or “Perry” for short. Other gardens have nicknamed their titan arums too: “Baby” (Brooklyn Botanical Gardens), “Big Bucky” (University of Wisconsin, Madison), “Tiffy” and “Taffy” (Fullerton Arboretum), “Ted” and “Tabatha” (University of California-Davis Botanical Conservatory).
Do we have any plants like this that are native to Minnesota?
Yes, we do! The titan arum belongs to a plant family called the Araceae or the Aroids or Arum family. A relatively common Minnesota spring flower in this family is Jack-in-the-Pulpit, found in the St. Peter area as well as in other areas of Minnesota. It also has a spathe and spadix. Other plants in this family include calla lily, Anthuriums, Dieffenbachia (dumb cane, corn plant), and Philodendrons.
How long will the inflorescence last?
It will last only about 48 hours. It takes a lot of energy to heat up the flower, release the aroma, and attract pollinators.
Will it bloom again?
It will bloom when it has replenished the energy it exhausted blooming this time. In the meanwhile it will produce another leaf annually until it blooms.
What is the lifespan of titan arum?
Approximately 40 years.
How big can titan arums get?
The inflorescence can get up to 3 meters (10 feet) tall. The prize for the tallest arum goes to Amorphophallus gigas, which can be up to 4 meters (12 feet) tall (Gustavus, by the way, has a plant of Amorphophallus gigas in its greenhouse collection). Other species of arums can be remarkably small: Amorphophallus pusillus from Vietnam has an inflorescence that is just 3 cm tall.
How many species of arums are there?
More than 170, mostly in the tropics. Some of these species have odors that are more pleasant: carrot-like, anise, chocolate, banana, fruity, or lemon-like.
Why is it important to conserve these plants?
Many species in the genus Amorphophallus, including the titan arum, are highly endemic. This means that they are only found in relatively small, restricted geographic areas. If the rainforest home of these species is destroyed, we will lose these species.
Where else has this plant been grown and flowered?
In 2007, Perry was the first flowering of the corpse flower in Minnesota. It has been grown in major botanical gardens and greenhouses throughout the world. Currently the University of Connecticut and the University of California-Davis have plants that are at approximately the same stage as Perry. Before that, the most recent flowering event was at Kew, the world-renowned botanical garden in London.
What can I do to help conserve the corpse flower and similar plants?
Do not buy animals, birds, or plants that have been poached from forests. Join a conservation group. Learn more about tropical rainforests. Buy plantation lumber and not lumber harvested from rainforests. Support your local botanical gardens (Linnaeus Arboretum, Gustavus Adolphus College; Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, University of Minnesota).
Is it hard to grow?
It takes years of careful cultivation to grow, though it appears to be no more difficult to grow than other Amorphophallus species. Its growth cycle produces leaves, followed by periods of dormancy, until the underground structure, called a corm, has sufficient energy reserves to flower. In summer 2006, the Gustavus corpse flower was re-potted; the corm weighed 90 pounds.
What good is it?
First and foremost, a plant as magnificent as Amorphophallus helps us realize the incredible complexity and diversity of the natural world. It emphasizes the need to conserve plants and biodiversity. Species in this genus are used for food and medicine worldwide. The corm (tuber) and leaf stalks are boiled and eaten. The corms have been used to treat stomach ailments, fever, swelling, and diarrhea. Amorphophallus is toxic if not prepared properly as it contains calcium oxalate crystals. These crystals naturally deter animals from eating it.