Last weekend, thousands of people walked through the University of Illinois Conservatory. Some of them traveled from hundreds of miles away. Most of them had never heard of the conservatory, much less paid it a visit. A video crew from Modern Marvels was also on hand. Why the sudden surge in popularity? It was all thanks to the long-awaited bloom of the Titan Arum (Amorphophallus titatum), popularly known as the corpse flower.
As you might guess from the reaction of my son after he stuck his nose inside the bloom, it’s called the corpse flower because at peak bloom it smells like rotting flesh.
As someone who spends a great deal of my life learning about and living with plants, seeing the Titan Arum in full bloom was a kind of plant geek nirvana. This is one of those plants that leaves you in awe, not just because of its pungent odor. Getting a Titan Arum to bloom is no small feat, and greenhouse manager Debbie Black and the rest of the U of I conservatory staff deserve a great deal of credit for seeing this arum through to flower. It grows for seven to ten years as just foliage. The foliage dies back and then the flower begins to grow. As with all aroids, the inflorescence is made of the spathe (the leafy collar) and spadix (the center column).
I was on the edge of giddy when I found out on Friday afternoon that the arum was opening. We had a family vacation to St. Louis scheduled for the weekend, so I’d been on pins and needles all week hoping I wouldn’t miss the bloom. Friday evening, my wife, son and I joined the rest of the inquisitive masses to take a whiff of ‘Titania’. As we made our way along the curved path in the conservatory, we caught small pockets of the plant’s odor. There was a sweet-smelling Barringtonia blooming in the conservatory as well, providing a short-lived olfactory counterpoint further away from the Titian Arum.
I was in horticulture heaven despite the stench. It was a potentially once-in-a-lifetime moment to see such a unique plant at its pinnacle.
The next few photos were taken in the week leading up to the bloom, with the spathe still tightly wrapped around the spadix.
I also paid a short visit to the conservatory after the bloom finished. In order to hand pollinate the flowers, Debbie Black cut ports into two sides of the spathe. As you can see below, the inflorescence is actually made up of numerous male (top) and female (bottom) flowers.
Within 48 hours after opening, the spadix slumped and the spathe began to degrade. Part of me found the declining flower as beautiful as the full bloom.
For many serious plant aficionados, seeing Amorphophallus titanum in bloom is a bucket list item. As for all of the other people who waited in line to sample its stench, I’ll chalk it up to the same human psychological factors that make a tourist attraction out of a five-legged calf in Kansas and a television icon out of Jerry Springer.
Laura Hayden has written a more detailed, botanically-relevant article on Amorphophallus titanum on her Durable Gardening blog. Check it out at http://durablegardening.blogspot.com/2011/07/amorphophallus-titanum.html You can also follow Laura on Facebook and Twitter.