There comes a time in a flowering plant’s life when it must learn about the birds and the bees, involve them in its sex life and produce a beautiful blossom. One plant sprouts a 60-plus-inch phallus, heats up, stinks like a corpse, does its best to attract carrion beetles and flesh flies and, after three pungent days of sexual activity, goes limp.
The plant is an Amorphophallus titanum – Titan arum for short -, which means, more or less, “giant changing penis.” In its native Sumatra and Borneo, people call it a corpse flower.
Barron Rugge just calls the plant “Tiny.”
Rugge is the manager of UCSB’s greenhouse and for eight years, he has been nurturing one of the world’s largest multi-flowered plants to sexual maturity. In mid-August, all his hard work paid off with a five-foot phallus. Tiny is neither an early nor a late bloomer; most Titan arums take between seven and eight years to reach their reproductive age, when the corn, or bulb, of the plant weighs roughly 30 pounds. Titan arum corns have been found in the wild weighing up to 160 pounds.
Despite appearances, Tiny is, like many plants, a hermaphrodite. The plant’s male and female parts are active on alternate days – female first and male second. Titan arum rarely self-pollinates, and usually must receive pollen from another plant.
When the plant is ready for sex, the flower changes color several times and the spadix – the phallus at the plant’s center – increases in size. Tiny’s spadix grew 15 cm to a potent height of 160 cm. And then there’s the smell, which some have described as “a rotting-fish-with-burnt-sugar scent.” The smell these flowers produce is composed primarily of sulfur-based compounds that are not easily spread to the air.
In order to emit its peculiar perfume, the plant heats itself by burning stored carbohydrates, spreading the smell out as olfactory welcome mat for carrion-eating beetles and flies. The enormous amount of energy the plant uses to attract insects limits the amount of time it can bloom to only a few days.
During the normal pollination process, carrion beetles and other insects, attracted by the foul smell, fly into the base of the flower covered in pollen from another titan arum and pollinate the plant on its female day. The insects are trapped in the base of the flower for the remainder of the day and fly out the following day, when the plant is male, picking up more pollen on their way out. Unfortunately for Tiny, there are no other Titan arums at UCSB and there are no insects here that are attracted to the smell of rotting flesh. This is where Rugge comes in.
Rugge pollinated the plant in mid-August using a pollen-covered Q-tip taped to tempered wire to get pollen to the flower buds hidden at the plant’s base. He did so at different times throughout the day.
The following day when Tiny was male, Rugge came to collect the pollen, but found none on the giant central stalk – the spadix. He said this was because the temperature in the greenhouse had dropped overnight. Tiny needs to have special conditions in the greenhouse to survive. The temperature cannot drop below 50 degrees Fahrenheit or the corn will rot and the leaves will die.
If the flowers are successfully pollinated, the spathe – the continuous, maroon-colored leaf around the shaft – eventually falls off, exposing the maturing seeds. When ripe, the fruits turn a bright orange-red. Tiny’s pollination was a success, and the plant has produced at least 150 ovules, each of which may include multiple seeds, Rugge said. The greenhouse plans to plant most of the seeds to see if they are viable and then trade or give some away to other institutions.
“They’re going to become pretty common in cultivation because so many have gone to seed,” Rugge said.
Rugge is hoping Tiny will flower again in 2006 or 2007.
Because of restrictions on exporting seed from the plant’s homeland, Titan arums are rare and difficult to come by. Only five or six Titan arums are expected to flower this year in California while only about 33 are expected to bloom in North America.
“This plant is fairly rare in the wild. You can find them deep in the forest in Indonesia and Borneo and in the botanical gardens there, but they are hard to find,” Rugge said.
UCSB’s greenhouse belongs to a network of Titan arum growers who trade pollen, advice and other resources with each other. UCSB greenhouse does not sell any of its rare plants out of consideration for local plant nurseries.
“We want to have rare plants here. The greenhouse is here to support the Biology Dept. and supply plants for different biology courses,” Rugge said. “With the plants in this greenhouse, they can see plants they wouldn’t otherwise see outside of a textbook.”
– Staff writer Brendan Buhler also contributed to this story.