USBG's Titan Arum on Display in 2003

July 23, 7:45 AM, photo on left

At 5:15 p.m. on Friday, July 25, 2003, we bid farewell to the Titan arum. Dr. Dan Nicolson of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History, Department of Botany, dissected the inflorescence (the central stalk). It will be preserved in the National Herbarium. The plant is now dormant and will live at our Production Facility greenhouses. We hope it will bloom again within several years. MORE...

Time-lapse Video
Windows Media Player smaller no night scenes
Time-lapse Video
QuickTime smaller no night scenes
Time-lapse Video
Windows Media larger includes night scenes
Time-lapse Video
QuickTime larger includes night scenes

Our Titan Arum Inflorescence Now in the National Herbarium

July 23, 7:45 AM, photo on left

On the morning of July 25, a decision grew out of conversation among staff. The inflorescence was clearly aging, the shape was changing, and the slow process of collapse was apparent. We weighed the alternative of continued public display against its merit as a scientific specimen. We decided to donate the inflorescence to the National Herbarium at the Smithsonian Museum’s National Museum of Natural History, thus preserving its value far into the future. (Click here to see photos of dissection, preservation).

We also had a unique opportunity to share the experience. We contacted the American Horticultural Society who had convened the 2003 National Youth Gardening Symposium in Alexandria. They hastily arranged for a group of educators to arrive at the garden at 5 p.m. to hear Dr. Dan Nicolson from the Department of Botany narrate the dissection. This proved to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to hear a specialist in the aroid family talk about the Titan arum and see him at work.

 The dissection proved to be dramatic. With the help of an assistant, Dr. Nicolson used a large knife to cut the base of the vase-like spathe away from the stalk. The onlookers gasped when he carefully lifted up the enclosing structure to expose the hidden flowering stalk. When unfurled, the large ruffle-edged spathe resembled a skirt, measuring about 30” at its widest point. Belying its size, it was surprisingly light in weight, owing to the foam-like structure of its tissue that could be easily observed at the cut edge.

Dr. Nicolson then used the machete to sever the flower stalk itself. Laying it carefully on a table, he guided the audience through detailed “see, touch, and smell” observations of the external and internal structures. The female flowers, surprisingly stiff and rubbery to the touch, were lowest on the stalk. The male flowers, now closed, had released copious amounts of pollen. Dr. Nicolson collected pollen for preservation and possible use in pollinating future blooms.

The spadix was soft, like suede to the touch. Dr. Nicolson cut it open to reveal an airy starkly white interior space. It was filled with soft very fine branching filaments, reminding one of fragile thread formed from lint. The group passed around a cluster of fibers--they smelled faintly of the sea, or perhaps a crab carcass too long in the sun. The inflorescence was measured and then cut in smaller pieces to be preserved in both plant press and in jars of chemical preservative.

 Although the above ground part of the plant is gone, below ground the corm is alive and well. In its current dormant state, it will live at our Production Facility greenhouses. Eventually, it will send up leaf stalks that will produce food until enough energy is stored for another bloom. This could take several years.

Amorphophallus titanum is known as the Titan arum or the corpse flower. It is native to the rainforest of Sumatra and grows typically in the moist shaded soils on the forest floor. It was first described by a European botanist named Odoardo Beccari in 1878. Seeds collected by Beccari traveled back to Italy and eventually to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in England. For more on Kew's history with the Titan arum go to

The flowering and growth cycle
The plant accumulates energy through its enormous leaves, some reaching greater than 18 feet tall and 15 feet in diameter. The energy is stored in an underground stem called a corm. When sufficient energy is accumulated, often after several years, the weight of the corm may exceed 140 lbs and the plant is ready to flower. The developing inflorescence grows above ground appearing as a pale-green bud-shaped structure composed of a spathe that encloses a central spike-like spadix. At first hidden inside, the spadix grows in size and then becomes revealed as the entire inflorescence swells. As the gray-brown spadix continues to rise in height, the spathe unfurls to reveal a crimson interior. The ultimate height depends on the energy accumulated in the corm. The speed of the development depends on day and night temperatures. Average recorded size of the inflorescence is about 5 feet, and the largest one is said to have been 12 ft in height! The plant lasts about 2 days at full bloom before falling into an exhausted heap. It then repeats the cycle.

How often will ours bloom? This is only its second time and it bloomed previously in 2001. Our plant is 10 years old, so we have a short history to guide us. We are hoping this will be repeated every two or three years.

And, by the way, at full bloom, the inflorescence is said to smell like a large rotting corpse, hence its other common name, the corpse flower.

Photos - Day 1, July 15