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Titan arum blooms, captivates viewers
POPLARVILLE, Miss. – A rare tropical plant drew a steady stream of fascinated onlookers to a Mississippi State University research station as it bloomed for the first time on June 30.
The 9-year-old titan arum was nicknamed “Spike” by the Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station researchers who care for it. Known scientifically as Amorphophallus titanum, Spike likely will not bloom again for several years.
“This is so unique I had to come see it,” said Maury Keys of Hattiesburg. “I come by here (the MSU South Mississippi Branch Experiment Station in Poplarville) all the time to look at the flowers. I love flowers and plants, and I love to garden.”
Commonly called a corpse plant for its pungent odor when blooming, the titan arum is native to the Indonesian island of Sumatra. Scientists believe it is the world’s largest unbranched inflorescence – the cluster of flowers arising from a plant’s main stem. The inflorescence of this plant includes separate male and female flowers within its structure.
“When this plant was discovered in the wild, people hearing the reports didn’t believe it really existed,” said Gene Blythe, an associate research professor at the branch experiment station where Spike is housed. “The first flowering of the plant in cultivation occurred in the late 1800s at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, London. Since then, seeds and seedlings have been shared among botanical gardens and research institutions.”
Seven years ago, a former botanist at the University of Mississippi donated Spike to the research station as a seedling from the university’s medicinal garden.
Most years, corpse plants produce one leafy stalk, which gathers the sun’s energy and stores it in an underground structure called a corm. When the plant has enough energy to bloom, a pointy, fleshy structure, called the spadix, emerges from the soil. The spadix is surrounded at the bottom by a light-green pleated structure, called the spathe. The male and female flowers are inside this part of the plant, and it darkens to a deep maroon as it nears bloom.
“Corpse plants generally don’t pollinate themselves. They need pollen from other plants brought by pollinators to reproduce,” said Gary Bachman, MSU Extension Service horticulture specialist and host of Southern Gardening. “They are only fertile for the one day the spathe is open. Caretakers of plants kept at research facilities, universities and botanical gardens, keep up with each other and know when and where plants are blooming. They ship pollen all over the place.”
The odor the plant emits when blooming is similar to the smell of decaying meat, which attracts flies and beetles that pollinate the plant in the wild. When blooming, the plant also heats up to around 98 degrees.
Scott Langlois, a research associate at the experiment station, said the plant may predate more common pollinators, such as bees.
“According to the research I did on the plant, it adapted to the needed traits to attract the only available insects to ensure its survival,” he said. “It mimicked a decaying corpse to draw flies and beetles that either lay eggs or feed on dead animals.”
Corpse plants can grow quite large. The spadix can reach 7 to 8 feet tall, and the spathe can unfurl as wide as 2 feet or more. Between June 9 and June 30, Spike’s spadix grew from 48 inches to 65 inches tall. Spike’s spathe opened to more than 19 inches wide. As plants grow older and the corm grows larger, the spathes get bigger and open wider when they bloom.
“For about two weeks, the spadix grew roughly 4 inches per day,” Langlois said. “Then the growth slowed down to 2 inches per day, and then to 1 inch per day. Yesterday (June 29), it didn’t grow at all. We then suspected that the spathe was about to open.
“These plants can get very large. They have the biggest corm of any plant. Some have been recorded at over 200 pounds,” Langlois said.
After blooming, the inflorescence will wither, and if pollination has occurred, produce berry-like fruits at the base of the spadix. In the wild, birds eat these fruits and disperse the seeds. About two months later, the plant will become dormant again. Corpse plants typically bloom every seven to 10 years.
“This is the single most unusual plant in Poplarville,” Langlois said. “And it’s one of the best places to see one of these plants. Of all the venues in the United States to see them, we may be the smallest and most accessible. I doubt other venues will let you get so close to the plant.”
Janet Jaskolski watched the plant on the live web feed from her home in Hattiesburg.
“I saw that it was blooming and told my husband that if wanted to see it, that today was the day,” said Jaskolski, who gardens and once owned a garden center. “It really is amazing how quickly it grows.”
Flower tissues from the plant will be collected and used by collaborating scientists at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the University of Florida to study its genetics and biochemical makeup, Blythe said.
The plant will be returned to the greenhouse where it gets water, fertilizer and plenty of room to grow.
“The plant is included in tours of the station for local school children,” Blythe said. “It is so unusual and interesting. Kids are amazed by it. Hopefully, it will get children interested in plants and science.”