Almost everyone has a bucket list. It might be a trip to a far away and exotic land. It could be eating more pancakes at a sitting than any other human. It might be building the world’s tallest barn. Plant people fall in that same category. Whether it’s growing and then blooming a rare and finicky woody like Franklinia alatamaha or finding a never seen before orchid in the wilds of Peru, there’s always a challenge. Flowering a giant corpse flower – or Titan Arum – fits in there somewhere near the top. It’s a holy grail deal. Well, we’ve done that.
Most flowering corpse flowers get a name. We named ours “Jack”, simply because Stephen F. Austin State University’s mascot is the lumberjack. We’re known as the University among the Pines.
Jack originally came to us from Florida on June 1, 2000. The SFA plant was given to me as a dormant fist-sized corm by Russell Adams of Gainesville Tree Farm in Florida. Russ is an avid horticulturist focused on growing a wide range of very rare palms, desert plants and Aroids. During a visit to his nursery after a speaking engagement, I had the joy of touring his collection and talking the wonderful world of plants. At one point he showed me three small dormant Amorphophallus titanum corms. There’s no doubt he saw my green-with-envy-I-want-that-plant look in my eye. This was at a time when giant corpse flowers were almost impossible to find. I rarely ask but I said cost was not an object. He said no, he couldn’t part with it. I told him I would crawl two miles in the mud to get that plant for the SFA Mast Arboretum. He said no again. We continued to tour and talk plants and just as I was about to drive away he said wait a minute and he went back inside the office and returned with a small bag with one corm in it. Jack was on his way back to Texas.
Jack quickly made his home in a pot and was grown along with thousands of other plants in our shade house. By some miracle the plant was always drug into the greenhouse when cool weather arrived in the fall and was drug back into the shadehouse when spring was fully in place. Over the next few years, Jack thrived. We shifted him up to a 15 gallon pot in 2002. The plant made some waves in 2003 with an 8’ leaf and thick trunk. Jack was moved into the greenhouse in the fall 2003 and kept a healthy leaf all the way into February 2004 before crashing back to the ground.
In March 2004, it was decided that Jack had done so well in 2003, he deserved a big new pot. Jack was repotted by students in a lab and at that time the corm was healthy and weighed in at a respectable 26 lbs and 2 ozs. As a token of our amazement, I brought the clean corm into our lecture series on a platter covered with a velvet cloth and announced to the crowd how wonderful this plant was and that I would retire when it came into bloom. I was lying, of course. I didn’t know it then, but Jack was thinking of flowering. I left for China in May and when I returned, Jack was poking his head out of the pot. I studied it a bit and thought, Damn, this isn’t a leaf, it’s a darn flower. Jack was on his way to fame and fortune.
Amorphophallus titanium, Titan Arum or Giant Corpse Flower, is found exclusively in the equatorial rainforests of Sumatra, Indonesia. The plant is said to grow in openings in the rainforest on limestone hills. The plant was discovered by Italian botanist Odoardo Beccari in 1878. The story is that Beccari and his crew stumbled on a very large plant in bloom and high fragrance and retreated to watch it from a distance. The stench suggested this might be a true man eater, a true Rocky shop of horrors. The plant is now endangered in the wild. The species was mined from the wild in great numbers, loaded on to boats and shipped to many of the great conservatories of the world. Seeds from the wild resulted in the first blooming of this species in cultivation at Kew in England in 1889. The first recorded bloom in the U.S. was at the New York Botanical Garden in 1937. When Jack flowered in July 2004 at SFA Gardens, there had been only two dozen recorded flowering events in the USA. A flowering event is often turned into a giant extravaganza for those few botanical gardens and arboreta that have been blessed with a plant that survives and actually flowers successfully. This Texas plant proudly joins the list.
The plant grows from a large corm which reaches weights up to 200 lbs. in the wild. Typically, the corms are smaller in cultivation but often top 75 lbs. or more. For most of their life, corms produce solitary, highly dissected leaves over 12’ high and 10’ across. Leaves persist for about a year and senesce. The plant then enters a dormant phase of several months. A replacement leaf emerges and the plant moves to growing a new root system and adding to the size of the corm. After a year or so, the process is repeated. Infrequently, instead of a replacement leaf, the corm will generate the blessed event: a flower. In that season, the leaf will emerge only after the flower has collapsed. The entire life cycle of leaf growth, flowering, and dormant periods is botanically strange, considering that these plants are found only warm equatorial jungle habitats. Equally curious, in the wild, the stages are evidently quite randomly spaced, with some plants in various stages of growth at any given time. The evolutionary significance of this is a matter of great debate. The plant is known to live forty years or more and can flower several times in its life cycle.
First, let’s be correct. Titan Arum has the title of the largest “flower in the world” but technically, the “flower” is really an “inflorescence”, or a cluster of flowers. The spadix can reach over 6 feet tall (the tallest ever recorded was over 10 feet), and when fully open the spathe can reach about 3 feet across. Thousands of true flowers are hidden inside at the base of the spadix (the fleshy central column). The large frilly-edged leafy structure enclosing the spadix is called the spathe. Male and female flowers are separate and in a ring around the base of the plant, with the female flowers below and receptive first, the male flowers above and releasing pollen the next day. This means that in the wild the plant must be cross pollinated. A plant will not produce seed unless pollinated from another plant because of the timing of stigma receptivity and pollen release. We call this dichogamy.
Very few people have been blessed enough to catch the corpse flower at its most powerful fragrance. Most bizarre to the general public is that when the flower is fully open, it emits the nauseating fragrance of rotten meat, hence its Indonesian common name ‘Bunga Bangkai’. The odor begins on opening of the inflorescence and lasts for about 8 hours. The flower typically stays open 18 hours to two days. The stench, strongest at night, is there to attract pollinators, thought to be flies, carrion beetles and sweat bees in the wild. The odor is reported to be emitted in waves as a gas and as a colleague of mine at the University of Connecticut recently told me, “a good whiff at the wrong time caused great pain and made my sinuses hurt for several days.” This sounds like a sure fire way to create a lifelong AAAS, the dreaded Amorphophallus Avoidance Anomaly Syndrome.
The flower is actually hot. Along with the odor, while the flower is first open, the spadix warms itself with metabolic heat, in what is thought to be an adaptation to volatilize and disperse its horrible carrion smell and insect-attracting chemistry. Temperatures in the depths of this flower are said to reach 5 to 20 degrees above ambient.
We started a website. We got the word out as best we could. I called the administration and insisted that they needed to be photographed with the plant. People drove great distances to see the plant. We kept up with the growth rates for botanists at Kew England. Jack eventually came in at 61 inches, no world record for sure.
Keep in mind that this was not a giant conservatory in a famous botanical garden. This was SFA. There were no long lines. We couldn’t afford a cam. We dressed Jack up with a cowboy hat and guns. Some large sunshades added a nice touch. Whole families had their portraits taken here. One of our local officers arrested Jack for indecent exposure. Jack became a sassy girl with a boa and a button that said, hey buddy, can you buy me a drink. I received hundreds of emails and one from a botanist imploring me to stop my students from dressing up Jack, that we were defiling one of the worlds’ great botanical masterpieces. I replied that it really wasn’t’ my students, it was me, and how many had he flowered? I’m from Texas. There were no bands, parades, or dancing girls. We didn’t put up a rope to cordon off visitors. No, we actually let visitors touch Jack.
When Jack’s flower opened on July 12, 2004, we had a ladder there for folks who wanted to peer into the gloom. This was the first time I suspect in history that a Titan Arum was made so available to the public. We made CNN and we made Fox banner. The website had over 14,000 visits. This was a singular event in corpse flower flowering. There was no entrance gate charge, no long lines, just some lawn chairs here and there in the shade house to give folks a rest if the excitement was too much. We played Isaac Hayes music to set the mood.
In an attempt to make seed, I called some friends and found some frozen pollen at the University of Connecticut. Clinton Morse and Matthew Opel had just endured an exhausting three week flowering event that ended right before our Jack opened. The pollen was flown in and at when the flower was fully open and stinking we cut a hole in the bottom of the spadix. Peering into the gloom with a flashlight we were able to see the juicy receptive flowers and with a paint brush we applied our magic pollen. We sealed up the trap door with duct tape in true Texas style. The flower soon wilted and the spadix fell over at 9 PM on July 15th. Jack’s spadix had been erect for about 77 hours from the first signs of opening. We waited to see if the pollination worked. It didn’t. The excitement was over.
We dug up the corm on October 20, 2004, cleaned it up a bit and put Jack on the scales. He weighed 21 lbs. which meant he lost five lbs during his flowering ordeal. I’m sad to report that Jack never really recovered and eventually succumbed a few years later for reasons we’ve never understood. Perhaps the excitement was too much. Jack was a Texan and a SFA Lumberjack. He loved the attention, the kids, the crowds and he’ll always be a memory to this wonderful garden in the Pineywoods of East Texas. Thanks to Tony Avent of Plant Delights, we received a fine number of seed and grew many young plants, most of which we distributed and some of those eventually flowered.
Life’s path is always a great surprise. In China in 2004, I was asked to give a lecture at the Nanjing Botanical Garden on Titan Arum since many Arboreta and Botanical Gardens had been trying to flower the plant for years and failed. The Beijing Botanical Garden had a plant that had been there thirty seven years in a conservatory and never flowered. The lecture made the front page of the Nanjing Times which has a readership of 30 million. I was interviewed by a local TV station in Nanjing and asked what I was going to do after having flowered this plant? I had never really thought about it quite like that. I said go back to my real interest in trees.
Years later, my President, Dr. Tito Guerrero, asked if I remembered our photoop and if I remembered telling him that he might not realize it but that day, that event was likely to be the most significant milsestone event in his time at the University. Well, he wanted me to know that he had been in California at a conference and was flying to a number of cities on the west coast. On one flight, he sat next to a fellow and they introduced each other and had some small talk. When Tito told him that he was President of Stephen F. Austin State University, the man hesitated a bit, thought a while and asked, “Hey, isn’t that the place that flowered the giant corpse flower?”