Amorphophallus Titanum - Giant Corpse Flower
"Big Jack is the name we gave the Amorphophallus titanum, giant corpse flower, that bloomed July 12, 2004 at the SFA Mast Arboretum. During the weeks before and after that date, we were barraged with press inquiries, web hits and emails. We made CNN and for a few seconds, we even made the Fox Banner! The following history is offered. For a more complete pictorial history of the event, check out the picture gallery on Jack the Corpse Flower!" ~ Dawn Stover
November 3, 2004 Update
We have been getting a lot of calls and emails. It’s one of those inquiring minds want to know kind of moments. Yes, we’ve been negligent in updating the world on what has happened to Jack since the big bloom date of July 12th. Here it is: Jack did not set seed. Even thought we pollinated the big fellow with pollen from Connecticut, it was a sad and pitiful failure. While we thought we had a good seedhead growing, the peduncle below it began to rot and the whole fruit melted away, gone in a week. Also, we learned this summer that the plant in Connecticut and the plant at Disneyworld failed to set seed. Three strikes and we were out. After the flower and fruit failure in July, Jack spent the rest of the summer as a corm in his white pot home. No emergence. With a great deal of fanfare, my class lifted Jack on October 20, 2004, cleaned him off a bit, washed him down, and weighed him. He weighed 21 lbs. So, that means he lost five lbs during his flowering ordeal. Not too bad (20% of his bodyweight gone). One interesting sidelight: we did notice a number of knots . . . almost corm-like . . . . on Jack’s sides, so we just popped them off and planted them . . . maybe they’ll be baby jacks?
July 14, 2004 Update
There’s no humility here! Jack finished up at 61” tall and started opening on Monday July 12, 2004 around 1:00 PM. When he unfolded, there was no doubt about it; he was incredible, a truly amazing and mysterious botanical masterpiece. At 2 PM we still weren’t positive this was the real thing – heck, how many folks have had experience with this? – so we put out a web alert that said we “think” he’s opening. At 3 PM, we knew we had an event and the announcement went out. The bloom opened to its finest that night around eight and Jack began cranking out a stench that withered the crowd. The delightful smell of spoiled meat was powerful enough to be detected over 100 yards away. Flies made their way to our shadehouse. Jack was reeking right in the middle of a crowd of admirers.
Around eight that night we cut a small rectangular window in the side of the spathe and we brushed on, blew on and chanted on pollen mixed in a little powdered milk. We even put on a little Barry White music for good luck. The pollen had arrived from Connecticut only a few hours before, a gift from the University of Connecticut via Clinton Morse. We sealed up the window with duct tape, kept up a little Jungle Blues music, said a few prayers and congratulated ourselves that Jack was pollinated.
On Tuesday morning Jack was still in fine shape but the spathe had moved upward a bit, as if he wanted to close. On Wednesday, pollen was extruded from the anthers and looked like tiny strands of grated cheese. That was carefully collected with a spatula, quickly placed in a bag with powdered milk to aid in the drying and shipped to James Thompson of Disney World where another Titan Arum was about do its thing. So the pollen chain continues! From what I understand, the University of Connecticut plant failed to set fruit and the plant withered away . . . so we have two chances left here to get viable seed: SFA’s Jack and Disney World’s Claire.
At this writing, Jack is nearing the end of his life. One of his spathe edges flopped over yesterday. On Thursday night July 15th, the spadix flopped over around 9 PM. That meant that Jack’s spadix had been erect for about 77 hours from the first signs of opening. Evidently the spadix collapse normally takes place after 48 hours, but Jack fooled all of us. On Friday July 16th, Dr. Shiyou Li, Director of SFA’s Center for Medicinal Plant Research, collected a section of the spadix for analysis. Perhaps Jack’s contribution will continue as a cure for cancer or a disease.
We are soooooooo proud of Jack. He’s done well. We know he wasn’t the biggest corm ever. Let’s face it: at 26 lbs. he was a small corm in the World of Amorphophallus corms. Everyone here can attest that he hasn’t had a plush lifestyle the last four years. But he’s a Texan. He’s an 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. Stay tuned to this website for the announcement of a CD of high resolution images and to keep posted on the success of our pollination. We need a nap.
Who is Big Jack?
Big Jack is Amorphophallus titanum – the infamous Titan Arum or Giant Corpse Flower and it 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 plant is endangered in the wild and very few exist in cultivation.
How rare is this blooming event?
After its discovery in 1878, 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. There have been only about two dozen recorded flowering events in the USA since then. 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.
How does this plant do what it does?
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.
What’s the big deal about this flower?
First, let’s be correct. Titan Arum had 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 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.
How bad is the odor?
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 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 Amorphophallus Avoidance Anomaly Syndrome. Rule:don’t stick your head into an open flower in the first eight hours.
The flower is actually hot?
Yes, isn’t that amazing? 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.
Where did SFA’s Big Jack come from?
Jack originally came 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 a dormant Amorphophallus titanum corm. There’s no doubt he saw my green-withenvy-I-want-that-plant look in my eye. 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 so I dropped it. We continued to tour and talk plants and just as I was about to drive away he handed me the corm with a few instructions on its care, and Jack was on his way to Texas. Jack quickly made his home in a pot and was grown along with thousands of other plants and by some miracle the plant was always drug into the greenhouse when the cool weather arrived in the fall and was drug back into the shadehouse when spring was fully in place. There was a shifting up in 2002 to a 15 gallon pot. 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. We didn’t know it then, but Jack was thinking of flowering. Jack emerged in mid-June 2004 and while we thought we had a leaf, it wasn’t long before we realized Jack was producing a flower.
You pollinated Jack?
Yes! Pollen was mailed from a University of Connecticut plant that just finished flowering. The pollen should arrive July 12, 2004. Clinton Morse and Matthew Opel have just endured an exhausting three week event that ended right before our Jack opened. However, Clinton tells me that the plant performed a bit less than expected and only stayed open 18 hours. The flower there was pollinated by frozen pollen from a plant at the Fullerton Arboretum that flowered several years ago. This means that Jack – with the University of Connecticut pollen – will be working with “fresh pollen”. The pollen was delivered in a styrofoam container and was still cool when it arrived. Jack was pollinated on Monday night about 8 PM. The tiny amount of pollen was carefully dusted on to the stigmas through a window we cut in the lower section of the spathe. This was, of course, a very stinky job because Jack was effusing his charm quite vigorously at that time. Bot flies and other flies had found this carcass and we’re lighting on the spadix. Hopefully, we will have good fertilization and a seed crop and baby Jacks. On Wednesday, we collected Jack’s pollen and that was mailed on to Jim Thompson at Disney World’s Animal Kingdom conservatory; a plant there is about to bloom! The pollen chain will continue until there’s one of the plants in every household in America! Stay tuned
How do we take care of Jack?
Essentially Jack has had to live his life on much the same regimen as all the other plants that surround him. We have a good organic substrate for him to live in. We fertilize him modestly and try to keep him moist. Even during the dormant period, the corm should be kept slightly moist.