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Plant Spotlight: Amorphophallus titanum

03 Oct 2016 - Nicholas Tyler Lannon

We’re taking a break from our regularly scheduled programming about urban gardening to talk about one of the most striking novelties of the horticultural world.

Photo Courtesy of Lothar Grünz, Amorphophallus titanum in Wilhelma

This is the largest, non-branching flower in the world; Amorphophallus titanum, commonly known as the Corpse Flower or Titan Arum. Titan arum can grow taller than 10 feet, has the largest corm in the world (the largest measured weighed 258 lbs), and smells like rotting flesh.

Titan arum is native to the equatorial rain forest ecosystems of Sumatra, Indonesia on limestone hills where the rain forest canopy breaks. Generally, the Titan arum sends up a single “leaf” a year, which has the appearance of a fleshy tree that can grow 20 feet tall and 16 feet in diameter (pictured below on left). In cultivation, the Titan arum will generally spend 7 to 10 years in a vegetative state, sending up a single leaf which dies back during the cold season. After many years of vegetating and storing energy, the plant will instead send up blooms at irregular intervals between 3 and 10 years.

Photo Courtesy of Tropenmuseum, Collectie Stichting Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen (1900-40's)

The flower of the Titan arum consists of two visible structures called the spadix and the spathe. The spadix is the elongated structure that extends vertically from the center of the plant. The spathe is the petal-like structure that surrounds the spadix. Attached to the spadix is two rings of flowers, one ring consisting of female flowers and the other consisting of male flowers. These flowers generally open up one to two days apart from each other to prevent self pollination.

Despite having an incredibly unique and imposing flower structure, Titan arum is perhaps best known for its smell. This fetid aroma plays an important function in the plant’s reproduction as its pollinators consist of dung beetles and flesh flies (insects in the family Sarcophagidae). Through the production of this aroma, the coloration of the inside of the spathe (flesh colored), and the plants ability to maintain comparable temperatures to the human body, carrion feeders and admirers of horticulturalist wonders find themselves drawn to Titan arum.