It stands nearly 5 feet tall and is still growing, and soon it will smell like rotting flesh, but it’s still Douglas Ewing’s baby.
It is an Amorphophallus titanum, also called Devil’s Tongue or Titan Arum, the giant “corpse flower” native to Sumatra. Ewing, manager of the University of Washington’s botany greenhouse, started the plant from seed six years ago and has watched as it matured and now is ready to bloom for the first time.
When the A. titanum blooms, probably within a week, it will be only the tenth time this century one of the exotic plants has flowered in the United States, and the first time west of Missouri. Two A. titanums bloomed in May at the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens in Sarasota, Fla., and plants bloomed last year in St. Louis, Miami and Atlanta.
“It’s still rare when it flowers,” Ewing said.
He said the goal of botanical gardens and university greenhouses is to strongly establish the plants in cultivated settings because they are becoming scarce in the wild. The plants have been heavily harvested for food and medicine and, because of their phallic appearance, also are valued by some as aphrodisiacs or cures for impotence.
“It’s still going to be unusual because it takes so much room and takes up so much warm space,” Ewing said. “And, a plant that reeks of carrion probably isn’t going to be big with the home gardener.”
The blossom is more properly called a compound flower, or an inflorescence, because it consists of many flowers. It is shaped like a giant calla lily, with a large, leafy, funnel-shaped spathe and a long tubular structure called a spadix in the center. Individual flowers are grouped around the base of the spadix, forming the largest inflorescence of any known plant.
The flower’s foul aroma lasts only about a day but attracts a variety of insects that pollinate the plant. The odor results from the powerful heating of the spadix by internal chemical reactions, called thermogenesis. Ewing noted that researchers have found the chemical that triggers thermogenesis is very similar to the active ingredient in aspirin. He plans to take infrared pictures of the plant as it blooms to study its heating properties.
The bloom itself is likely to last only a couple of days, Ewing said, though it could linger for three or four. Whether it would bloom again is anyone’s guess – it’s never happened on an A. titanum plant outside its natural habitat.
“In habitat, I’ve heard that it does this only every two to three years because it takes so much energy,” he said. “It will be interesting to see how it does in greenhouses.”
Ewing said he began searching for an A. titanum specimen for the UW greenhouse when he arrived as manager in 1983. The seed for the plant that is about to bloom arrived six years ago from Frankfurt, Germany. He later received 10 seeds collected from Sumatra, and all are growing. Additional plants have been started from A. titanum tubers sent to Ewing.
The UW botany greenhouse has numerous unusual specimens such as A. titanum that provide educational opportunities for UW students and for elementary and secondary students and the general public, Ewing said. Having the specimens on hand helps students to understand the rich diversity in the plant kingdom and to observe uncommon plants through long stages of development.
“We have plants in our collection that you would find pictured in every botany textbook but that are being grown at very few universities,” he said.
For more information, contact Ewing at (206) 543-0436 or firstname.lastname@example.org