Birth of a Giant Arum: Follow-Up

Amorphophallus titanum—the botanical mouthful is the Latin name for Titan arum, a Sumatran cousin of the common philodendron. Unlike the diminutive houseplant, Titan lives up to its label by producing giant leaves more than 20 feet long and 50 feet around. Only one leaf appears each growing season, springing from an underground storage organ, or tuber, that can weigh more than 100 pounds. The tropical Titan doesn't do sex very often—just a few times in its 40-year life span—but

By | April 15, 2002

Amorphophallus titanum—the botanical mouthful is the Latin name for Titan arum, a Sumatran cousin of the common philodendron. Unlike the diminutive houseplant, Titan lives up to its label by producing giant leaves more than 20 feet long and 50 feet around. Only one leaf appears each growing season, springing from an underground storage organ, or tuber, that can weigh more than 100 pounds. The tropical Titan doesn't do sex very often—just a few times in its 40-year life span—but when it does, it erects a giant inflorescence containing separate male and female flowers.

Last spring, a Titan specimen in a University of Wisconsin, Madison, greenhouse acted on its sexual juices by raising an 8-foot-long floral spike.1 Without a hint of shyness, the Wisconsin botany department shared the intimate event with the rest of the world, opening the greenhouse to visitors and showing off the overheated plant on the Internet.

On March 15, Wisconsin botanists began harvesting more than 1,000 fruits from the spent spike. While the Titan was in heat, herbarium director and systematist Paul Berry applied pollen donated by Selby Botanical Gardens in Sarasota, Fla., to the Titan's female flowers. The result was a remarkable 100% fruit set, with each orange berry containing one or two seeds. Berry doesn't take all the credit, though. Titan "isn't a terribly specific pollinator," he says—thousands of local houseflies buzzed the blooming Titan, attracted by its stench-like odor. The visiting flies probably helped spread the pollen.

Berry has no plans—or room—to raise 1,500 baby arums, so he's sending seed to botanical gardens and universities around the world, including quite a few along with a thank-you note to Selby Botanical Gardens. In collaboration with Australian and Indonesian botanists, Berry also wants to use seed to maintain Titans in their home rain forests.

1. B.A. Palevitz, "Watching plants grow," The Scientist, 15[14]:13, July 9, 2001.

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