The Titan Arum Plant: A blooming Miracle

The gigantic flower, Titan arum plant, offers a unique experience for visiters of the Atlanta Botanical Garden.

| January/February 1999

  • An up-close view of the spathe and spadix of Titan arum
  • The plant’s true flowers, thousands of them, tiny and forming a ring around the spadix base.
  • The Titan arum on display at the Atlanta Botanical Garden last ­summer. Its bloom lasted from July 4 through July 8./p>
    T. Ness

Flowering six feet tall and stinking to high heaven, the surreally magnificent Titan arum plant provided a rare show last summer at its home at the Atlanta Botanical Garden: It bloomed.

The event sent attendance records soaring at the garden—151 percent above average (7,025 visitors during a ten-day period in 1998 compared to 3,708 in 1997)—all attributed to the blooming of this rare Sumatran beauty.

Titan arum is a huge bell-and-clapper inflorescence, or flower cluster. Before last summer’s performance in Atlanta, the species had bloomed only six times in the United States; it is found naturally only on the island of Sumatra in Indonesia, where people call it bangua bangui, or “corpse flower.” It’s related to some medicinal flowers­—sweet flag (Acorus calamus), to name one—but is not medicinal itself. Its scientific name is Amorphophallus titanum, which inspires its fair share of Viagra jokes and risqué allusions, but, truly, this plant is remarkable in many ways.

When not in bloom, the plant grows one massive leaf measuring more than ten feet tall and eight to twelve feet around; its stalk looks like the trunk of a small tree. When the change from vegetable to reproductive growth occurs (that is, when the plant moves from leaf to flower), the tip of an enormous gray-green bud emerges from the soil. Here in Atlanta, the plant lives in a massive pot, and the bud looks like a gray “conehead.”

The flower’s progress is amazingly fast, growing about four inches every twenty-four hours and changing noticeably from day to day. As the plant grows, its bud parts to reveal voluptuous pleats of chartreuse petals folded inside (technically referred to as the spathe). As the spadix, or floral spike, elongates, the flower unfolds and gradually turns color. The final opening of the spathe is rapid; it took two hours for the full bloom to show on the Atlanta plant.

The plant is spectacular: An enormous gray-red spadix stretches six feet, two inches above the ruffled burgundy spathe, itself nearly four feet across and chartreuse on the outside. Circling the base of the spadix and hidden deep inside the spathe are the true flowers—between 3,000 and 4,000 of them—all bearing pollen. In a second ring sit more than 700 pistillate flowers with ovaries.

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