One of the four Titan Arums being grown in the Biological Sciences Botany Greenhouse at Western Illinois University is currently producing it’s first inflorescence. These plants were initially acquired as seed from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in May of 2002. One of their Titans, Big Bucky, was the ovule donor and the pollen donor was Mr. Magnificent from the Marie Selby Botanical Garden in Sarasota, Florida. The seeds for both of these plants were collected in 1993 by Dr. James Symon in Sumatra while filming for Sir David Attenborough’s BBC documentary “The Private Life Of Plants.”
The Titan Arum, Amorphophallus titanum, is a member of the Araceae Family that includes plants such as, Jack-in-the-Pulpit, Calla Lilly, Anthurium, Diffenbachia, Philodendron, and Pothos. It is native to equatorial rainforests of central Sumatra in Indonesia. It was first discovered here in 1878 by Italian botanist Odoardo Beccari. He collected seeds which were provided to England’s Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew. They recorded the first bloom of this species in cultivation in 1889. The first bloom of this species in the United States occurred at the New York Botanical gardens in June of 1937.
For most of it’s life, the Titan Arum grows vegetatively producing a single, compound umbrella-like leaf. In the wild this can reach 20 feet tall and 15 feet across. The Titans in the WIU Botany Greenhouse only get about half that in size. This leaf feeds and grows from a corm, which, in the wild can weigh over 200 pounds. The leaf will usually grow for about a year before withering and the plant going dormant. If the corm is of sufficient size, upon cessation of dormancy it may produce an inflorescence instead of another leaf.
The inflorescence is composed of thousands of flowers hidden on the base of the spadix by the large, frilly spath. Female flowers are located on the bottom of the spadix while the male flowers are above. Male flowers release their pollen usually a day after the female flowers are receptive, ensuring cross pollination. The spath has a deep maroon interior. It unfurls 3 to 4 weeks after the bud first appears.
To attract pollinators, the inflorescence emits an odor resembling rotting meat and is strongest at night. In it’s native environment, the Titan Arum is pollinated by carrion beetles and flesh flies. This is why one of its other common names is Corpse Flower.