The Titan Arum or Amorphophallus titanum is a flowering plant with the largest unbranched inflorescence in the world. The plant is also known as the carrion flower or the corpse flower because the flower’s fragrance is similar to the odor of rotting meat. The Titan Arum was discovered by Italian botanist Odoardo Beccari in Sumatra in 1878. It grows wild only in the tropical forests of Sumatra.
The Titan Arum first flowered in cultivation at the Royal Botanic Gardens, at Kew in London in 1889. Since then, over 100 cultivated flowers have blossomed. Titan Arum flowering was first documented in the United States at the New York Botanical Gardens in 1937.
The Titan Arum grows from a tuber which can eventually weigh over 200 pounds. The plant produces a single leaf that can reach twenty feet tall and fifteen feet across with a petiole as thick as a person's thigh. The single leaf will grow for about twelve to eighteen months and look almost tree-like. The leaf will then die back and the tuber will rest for about six months, followed by another single leaf.
After a number of years of vegetative growth, the tuber will send up a single inflorescence with both male and female flowers. The inflorescence develops over about three to four weeks and when fully developed can reach ten feet tall by three to four feet wide. The spadix (fleshy central column) has thousands of flowers hidden in its base. The outer spathe, which looks like a frilly upturned skirt has a maroon interior and green exterior. The large inflorescence usually opens abruptly (within hours) and remains open for only a day or a day and a half.
Image courtesy Mo Fayyaz, University of Wisconsin - Madison
When fully open, the inflorescence produces a "rotting-fish-burnt-sugar" scent. The odor is strongest at night and attracts carrion beetles and flies which serve as pollinators. Additionally, the tip of the spadix warms up to approximately the temperature of the human body. This heating is thought to assist in dispersing the scent. After three to five days the spadix collapses. The spathe falls off and the fruit mature if there has been successful pollination. The poisonous ripe fruit are bright orange-red, about the size of cherries and are attractive to birds. Birds eat the fruit and disperse the seeds.
The seed for the Titan Arum at Eastern Illinois University was obtained from the University of Wisconsin – Madison in 2001. The ovule donor was “Big Bucky” and the pollen donor was “Mr. Magnificent” from the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens in Sarasota, Florida.
The seeds for both “Big Bucky” and “Mr. Magnificent” were collected by Dr. James R. Symon during a trip to Sumatra in 1993 on a BBC expedition filming The Private Lives of Plants. Dr. Symon collected the seeds from the sole A. titanium found in fruit and distributed the seeds to U.S. and British conservatories and greenhouses for cultivation. Amorphophallus titanum is on the World Conservation Union’s Red List of Threatened Species.
Following six and a half years of vegetative growth, the Titan Arum in the H.F. Thut Greenhouse at Eastern Illinois University produced its first inflorescence in June 21, 2008.
After the inflorescence died back in July, 2008, it sent up a single fifteen-foot tall leaf in August, 2008. The leaf died back in late November, 2009 and the forty-five pound tuber remained dormant until early March, 2010 when it started growing again and developed into an inflorescence. The inflorescence opened on June 9, 2010. The titan arum bloomed a third time on July 1, 2012.