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They came, they saw and they sniffed the rare corpse flower

Commonly called a corpse flower, the 10-year-old plant bloomed for the first time July 15.
Photo by
L. Brian Stauffer

Commonly called a corpse flower, the 10-year-old plant bloomed for the first time July 15.

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INSIDE ILLINOIS, July 21, 2011 | Sharita Forrest, News Editor & Mike Helenthal, Assistant Editor

A flowering plant by any other name may have smelled sweeter, but it’s hard to argue the marketing value of the corpse flower.

Hundreds of people visited the Plant Biology Greenhouse last week to view, photograph and, of course, sniff the rare titan arum, also called the corpse flower.

Hundreds of people visited the Plant Biology Greenhouse last week to view, photograph and, of course, sniff the rare titan arum, also called the corpse flower. | Photo by L. Brian Stauffer

Last week, hundreds of people kept close tabs on the rarely blooming titan arum –also called the corpse flower – which finally bloomed July 15 following a 10-year, painstaking wait.

“What could we possibly do to top this?” asked Debbie Black, manager of the Plant Biology Greenhouse, where over the weekend people waited in line to see the plant.

Hundreds more watched live streaming video of the plant, waiting for the moment when it would start blooming and exude the rotting-meat odor that attracts insect pollinators.

“It’s been like a roller-coaster, but it’s been wonderful,” Black said. “Our main goal was to get some exposure, and we certainly met that goal. But it was just so much fun watching people and their reactions.”

In all, Black said about 4,000 people visited the greenhouse during a 10-day period. Hundreds more watched it live on the Web, with some 1,100 simultaneous watchers tuning in Friday alone. “Since July 5, when I first knew it was going to flower and I started getting the word out, I had 33,200 hits on the greenhouse Web page,” Black said.

Greenhouse Manager Debbie Black kneels by the university's titan arum in the Plant Biology Greenhouse. In the week before it bloomed, the plant grew to more than 5 feet.

Greenhouse Manager Debbie Black kneels by the university's titan arum in the Plant Biology Greenhouse. In the week before it bloomed, the plant grew to more than 5 feet.
| Photo by L. Brian Stauffer

Black said she thinks the rarity of the plant (fewer than 100 corpse flowers have reportedly bloomed in the U.S. since the first one unfurled at the New York Botanical Gardens in 1937) led to the popularity of the local event.

“It’s just so rare and unusual,” she said. “And when it bloomed and people got to smell it, you should have seen the looks on their faces.”

A member of the Araceae family and cousin of Calla lilies, peace lilies, dieffenbachia and philodendrons, the titan arum, latin name Amorphophallus titanum, is notoriously difficult to cultivate and blooms unpredictably.

The UI’s titan arum was grown from seed that was given to the university by Mo Fayyaz, a botanist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison who cultivated “Big Bucky,” the first titan arum to bloom in Wisconsin. After the Wisconsin plant flowered in 2001, the seed was harvested and shared with Illinois and several other institutions.

“We’ve coddled it for 10 years,” Black said about the UI’s titan, which was named Titania following a poll of greenhouse visitors in 2010.

As Titania neared maturity, it started growing at an astonishing rate, shooting up 7 inches in three days, from 29 inches July 3 to 36 inches on July 6.

Richard Skibsted, an intern in the Illinois lieutenant governor's office, takes a whiff of the titan arum at the UI Plant Biology Greenhouse. When in bloom, the plant emits a pungent odor -- reminiscent of decaying meat -- to attract pollinating insects.

Richard Skibsted, an intern in the Illinois lieutenant governor's office, takes a whiff of the titan arum at the UI Plant Biology Greenhouse. When in bloom, the plant emits a pungent odor -- reminiscent of decaying meat -- to attract pollinating insects. | Photo by L. Brian Stauffer

Titan arums grow from an underground corm that can weigh 200 pounds or more. Titania’s corm, which has outgrown and broken a succession of pots, weighed in at a petite 38 pounds on June 20.

If exposed to too much moisture in cultivation, the corms can rot easily. To prevent that, Titania is planted in a high porosity potting soil that conserves moisture while allowing quick drainage, Black said.

Like other tropical plants, titans require temperatures of 75 degrees or more and high humidity. For most of its life, a titan arum cycles through periods of dormancy and activity, producing a single, umbrella-like leaf each year that can tower up to 20 feet tall and span 15 feet.

Last year, Titania’s leaf began growing in March and reached more than 9 feet tall before it began to die in December.

The plants typically bloom seven to 10 years after germination, producing a flower structure called an inflorescence, which comprises thousands of tiny flowers arranged around the base of a fleshy central column known as the spadix that is enclosed in a frilly-edged bud called the spathe.

When the plant blooms, the spathe unfurls suddenly, usually within a few hours, beginning in mid-afternoon. When fully open, the spathe reveals a maroon interior similar in appearance to raw meat and emits its signature corpselike smell to attract carrion beetles, flesh flies and other pollinators. To increase its chances of pollination, the plant burns stored carbohydrates to heat itself up, reaching near human body temperature at the tip of the spadix to disperse the fragrance as widely as possible.

The enormous amount of energy required to generate the bloom and diffuse the fragrance only allows the plants to bloom for 24-36 hours and prevents them from blooming annually. After the initial flowering, a titan may bloom every two to three years.

After blooming, Black said the plant actually traps the pollinating insects for a few days before collapsing to ensure they’re covered in pollen.

A titan arum has both female and male flowers, and to encourage cross-pollination with other plants the female flowers mature first, followed by the male flowers the next day. If pollinated, the plant produces a ball of bright red fruits the size of cherries, which birds consume, scattering the seeds in the environment.

Whether Titania will successfully be pollinated after blooming remains to be seen. Black said greenhouse workers tried over the weekend to artificially pollinate the plant. Rarely, a plant may self-pollinate.

“I have a tiny bit of pollen from Eastern Illinois University from when their titan bloomed a couple of years ago,” Black said. “But that’s 2-year-old pollen that’s been in the freezer. It’s truly amazing what nature does for pollination and to continue the species.”

She said the plant will continue to be monitored and she will be consulting with other experts to see if the pollination effort was successful.

Over the weekend, staff members with offices in the same building as the conservatory were forewarned that Titania was about to flower – and unleash a foul odor.

Black said she was overwhelmed at the outpouring of public interest, which included a visit from a television crew for the History Channel’s “Modern Marvels.”

She said she’s not sure how long everyone will remember the spectacle, but not to worry: Titania’s expected to bloom again sometime in the next two to three years.

She has postulated that the plant didn’t bloom exactly on time, or for as long as expected, because of exterior lighting outside the greenhouse facility; and because of its genetic makeup, which may differ slightly from other titans.

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