Archives For Karen Z.

When Ross Gerbasi and his coworkers at Threaded Films heard that the Chicago Botanic Garden’s first titan arum, Spike, might bloom in August, they immediately thought, “puppet.”

An unusual thought, unless you happen to be Ross…or his mom, Debi Gerbasi…or artist Jessica Plummer. These three started making puppets together for fun about a year ago. Naturally, the group began with puppets of themselves…then of all the guys at Threaded Films (a video/production company with a penchant for film gear). 

PHOTO: Titan Taylor (the amorphophallus titanum puppet) was almost as big a star as #CBGAlice.

Titan Taylor was almost as big a star as #CBGAlice.

Although Spike lost energy and never did open, Ross and his mom and Jessica kept the energy going on their titan arum puppet project. Slowly, the basement of Debi’s house turned into a creative factory, with floor-to-ceiling plastic walls around the sanders, saws, and drills. (A separate, dust-free area houses Debi’s well-furnished sewing room.)

PHOTO: Taylor an Amorphophallus titanum puppet, poses with kids.

Ross Gerbasi and TItan Taylor talked and posed with fans in the bonsai courtyard until 8 p.m.

Jessica took the creative lead for shaping the titan puppet, which is made of foam. Paper templates came first; next came foam that could be heated, bent, sanded, carved, airbrushed, and painted. The spadix (the tall structure in the center) is made of lightweight, open-cell foam…with buttons for eyes. The puppeteer’s arm goes up a sewn-on sleeve inside.

Just as the puppet, dubbed Taylor (whose name was chosen for its genderless quality), was finished, Ross and company heard that a second titan arum had sent up a flower bud at the Garden. Ross brought Taylor to our office to meet us—and we immediately “booked” it as “public puppet” for the night that the second titan, dubbed Alice the Amorphophallus, would bloom.

That turned out to be September 29, 2015, and with Ross as puppeteer, Taylor turned out to be an attraction second only to Alice herself. Children flocked to the puppet, thrilled to meet their first titan. Adults with big smiles took photos and selfies.

PHOTO: Threaded Films puppets—Ross Gerbasi on the right.

Threaded Films puppets—Ross Gerbasi on the right.

Thank you, Ross. It was really, really fun.

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and

It is our pleasure to introduce another titan arum (in bloom!), which we have joyfully named “Alice the Amorphophallus.” Given the history below, it’s a name to remember! Alice will be on display in the Semitropical Greenhouse through Sunday, October 4—view what she looks like now on our webcam. 

PHOTO: Alice the Amorphophallus began blooming late at night on September 28, 2015.

Alice the Amorphophallus is caught blooming on webcam at 12:22:39 a.m. today—the Semitropical Greenhouse may smell a bit funky this morning.

When the Chicago Botanic Garden’s first budding Amorphophallus titanum presented itself, we called it “Spike,” since the flower structure, or inflorescence, is also known as a flower spike.

But the true name of Spike (and Alice) is a title that can make you blush, do a double take, or send you running to Google. How did Amorphophallus titanum end up with that name?

First, imagine a world where the same plant was called different names in different languages in every town in every valley in every country around the globe.

It existed before 1753, when the great botanist Carolus Linnaeus brought order to the chaos with his famous work titled Systema Naturae.

His simple system of binomial nomenclature allowed the world to speak the same language when it came to plants. It was no coincidence that the chosen tongue was Latin—the only language acceptable to all (at least in Europe), as its native speakers no longer existed.

ILLUSTRATION: Corpse plant in flower illustrated by M. Smith in Curtis's Botanical Magazine (1891).

Amorphophallus titanum (Becc.) Becc. ex Arcang.—titan arum from Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, vol. 117 [ser. 3, vol. 47]: t. 7153 (1891) [M. Smith]

Linnaeus created the scientific shortcut of categorizing plants by their flowers and fruit (leaves had already been tried and abandoned). The elegant system caught on, and Linnaeus himself named some 9,000 plants before his death in 1778.

Some of those plant names continued a long-standing practice: using the nomenclature of the human body to label the botanical world.

The Greeks had done it: they chose the word Hepatica (hepar = liver in Greek), as the name for plants with tri-lobed leaves that look rather like a human liver.

The Romans coined the familiar name Pulmonaria (pulmo = lungs in Latin) for the perennial with spotted leaves that suggested a diseased lung.

Likewise, Linnaeus named a genus Podophyllum, because its leaf resembled a foot, and named another Digitalis—and what gardener hasn’t slipped a fingertip into the flower of a foxglove and admired how neatly it fits?

Fast forward 100 years.

A century after Linnaeus, during the great age of plant exploration in the mid-1800s, ships from many countries were crisscrossing the seas in search of riches—including rare and exotic plants.

ILLUSTRATION: Bud shown with male and female flowers of Amorphophallus titanum (Becc.) Becc. - Titan Arum from Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, vol. 117 [ser. 3, vol. 47]: t. 7153 (1891) [M. Smith].

Bud shown with male and female flowers of Amorphophallus titanum (Becc.) Becc. ex Arcang.—titan arum from Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, vol. 117 [ser. 3, vol. 47]: t. 7153 (1891) [M. Smith]

One ship brought Italian botanist and explorer Odoardo Beccari to Sumatra, Indonesia, in 1878. There he was rewarded with the sight of a “bunga bangkai” in full flower. Roughly translated, the name meant “corpse flower” or carrion flower (a name also given to the stinky tropical genus Rafflesia). Collecting seeds and a number of corms, Beccari sent his prizes back to his Italian patron. Sadly, the corms perished. But the seeds survived, and seedlings were grown from them—one of those was sent the following year to the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. (In 1889, the plant flowered, causing a sensation.)

Beccari’s notes from his trip were published in 1879 in Nuovo Giornale Botanico Italiano under the title “L’Amorphophallus titanum Beccari.” In naming the “new” species, Beccari simply added “giant” to the already-descriptive genus name, which translates as “misshapen phallus.”

Jump forward another century and, in 1995, Sir David Attenborough presented a BBC show called The Private Life of Plants. In the episode about flowers, he introduced A. titanum to viewers with a new “common” name: titan arum. Attenborough felt that the Latin name was inappropriate for television audiences.

Today, as titan cultivation succeeds at more and more botanic gardens and academic institutions, it has become popular to personify these giants of the plant world with nicknames. Some have been rooted in botany (“Carolus” at Cornell referenced Linnaeus himself), some steeped in mythology (“Hyperion,” the thinking man’s Greek titan, at Gustavus Adolphus University), some simply named with joy and humor (“Bob,” “Morticia,” “Tiny”).

PHOTO: Early morning visitors to #CBGAlice enjoy a snootful of stench from the blooming beauty.

Early morning visitors to #CBGAlice enjoy a snootful of stench from the blooming beauty.

PHOTO: The flashlight apps of several cell phones light this morning's pollination activities. Dr. Shannon Still wields a paintbrush laden with pollen, brushing it lightly on the female flowers on the spadix.

The flashlight apps of several cell phones light this morning’s pollination activities. Dr. Shannon Still wields a paintbrush laden with pollen, brushing it lightly on the female flowers on the spadix.

PHOTO: Phones and cameras are out in force today to capture the magical titan arum bloom. The square in the back of the flower is the replaced spathe where pollination occurred moments earlier.

Phones and cameras are out in force today to capture the magical titan arum bloom. The square in the back of the flower is the replaced spathe where pollination occurred moments earlier.

We hope you enjoy your visit with #CBGAlice! Please check our website at for info on the bloom. The live webcam will remain on through Sunday, October 4, 2015. 

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and

Fall is the season to spend outdoor time with the family. With school occupying the weekdays and thoughts of the busy holidays ahead, every autumn weekend counts!

For some families, “Let’s go look at the leaves” works as an autumn weekend rallying cry year after year (Welcome back!). But other families need a little more than color for motivation. Here are our suggestions for some fun fall things to do together at the Chicago Botanic Garden—and what to say to get the kids interested:

PHOTO: Beekeeper Ann Stevens adds bees to a hive this past spring.

Beekeeper Ann Stevens adds bees to a hive this past spring. Find out how those bees did this summer, and get more beekeeping questions answered in person!

“Let’s go meet the beekeepers.”

Harvest Weekend is September 19 to 20. The whole family can head out to the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden for a day full of fun and interesting topics: talk face-to-hood with the beekeepers; sample the apple expert’s varieties and discuss how to plant an apple tree in your yard; learn how to pickle, can, and preserve and how to keep growing veggies into winter; and join in on a honey tasting! There’s fun stuff for little kids, of course, and for foodies there’s a cookbook swap—bring a gently used cookbook and take a “new” one home!

Also that weekend: It’s the final Malott Japanese Garden Family Sunday of the season, a good day for exploring more about Japanese culture (creative kids will dig the gyotaku, or fish prints).

PHOTO: Biking to and from the Garden is better than ever with the North Branch Trail connection, and newly-available bike rentals.

Biking to and from the Garden is better than ever with the North Branch Trail connection, and newly available bike rentals.

“Let’s go for a bike ride.”

Rent a bike on site at the Garden or BYO (bike your own) here via the spiffy new Green Bay Trail linkup and North Branch Trail addition along Lake Cook Road. Park your bike at the Visitor Center or Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Plant Conservation Science Center, and hike around to see the mums, the first fall color in the McDonald Woods, and the taller-than-your-head grasses in the Dixon Prairie.

Every weekend in September: free, fun activities for your toddlers, preschoolers, and elementary school kids! Bring them to Family Drop-ins under the arbor at the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden. Hands-on activities for fall include making pumpkin prints and playing sniff & guess!

PHOTO: Selfie spot! Gourd Mountain is a great backdrop for your fall photo.

Gourd Mountain returns as the favorite photo op at the Fall Bulb Festival!

“Let’s go see Gourd Mountain.”

Fall Bulb Festival is October 2 to 4. Everybody loves Gourd Mountain, the giant pile of picture-perfect gourds on the Esplanade (holiday photo, anyone?). It’s the centerpiece of Fall Bulb Festival, which combines the always-anticipated indoor Bulb Sale with an outdoor harvest marketplace. Sip a cider while you munch on cinnamon-roasted almonds, or enjoy a glass of wine or beer while you browse the booths. The straw-bale maze is a giggling playground for kids or all ages. Add live music, and brilliant fall color and enjoy the Garden in its full fall glory.

Also that weekend: Take advantage of the October 4 Farmers’ Market to buy freshly harvested fruits, vegetables, and fall crops, with an eye toward canning and preserving. (Did you get your recipes from Harvest Weekend’s cookbook swap?)

PHOTO: Elsa and Olaf know the place to trick-or-treat is Hallowfest!

Elsa and Olaf know the place to trick-or-treat is HallowFest!

“Let’s go trick-or-treating.”

We have three weekends to show off your costumes at the Garden this year!

Come in costume to Trains, Tricks & Treats (October 17 to 18) and HallowFest (October 24 to 25), and bring the dog in costume, too, for Spooky Pooch (read more below)! The Model Railroad Garden: Landmarks of America hosts Trains, Tricks & Treats especially for toddlers and preschool train enthusiasts, with spooky-friendly decorations and the garden’s famous miniature landmarks decked out in Halloween style. We’ll be handing out small treats and treasures, too—and a Halloween plant to take home! (Admission applies.)

“Things” get a little creepier at HallowFest, as night falls at the Garden: start with scar-y face painting, then check out the bat cave, the haunted forest, the awesome carved pumpkin gallery, and the ghost train at the Model Railroad Garden. Then…dance party! Excellent family photos, right?

PHOTO: Spooky Pooch parade favorite Cerberus (or "Fluffy" to Harry Potter fans) "pawses" for a photo op.

Parade favorite Cerberus (or “Fluffy” to Harry Potter fans) “pawses” for a photo op.

“Let’s dress the dog up!”

Spooky Pooch Parade is on Halloween this year—Saturday, October 31! If you haven’t been to Spooky Pooch Parade yet, you’re in for a “treat!” For two hours only (11 a.m. to 1 p.m.), the Garden throws open its doors to human’s best friends (on leashes) for a truly zany costume contest and pet parade, and one of the most fun and popular days of the year. The competition is stiff—last year’s overall winner was the entire cast of The Wizard of Oz!

Also that weekend: the Roadside Flower Sale is the best resource in town for the beautifully crafted dried flower arrangements, cornucopia, wreaths, bouquets and decorations you crave for the holidays. Dried flowers, grasses, and pods are collected all year long by a dedicated group of volunteers, who spend months designing and crafting the 300-plus items for sale; it’s been a Garden tradition since 1980.


See you at the Garden this fall!

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and

Pollen 101

Karen Z. —  September 10, 2015 — Leave a comment

Did you have a flashback to science class when you saw Spike, the titan arum? I sure did.

PHOTO: Tim Pollak and Dr. Shannon Still point out plant parts of the titan arum to the gathered crowd of visitors.

With Spike’s frilly spathe removed, Tim Pollak and Dr. Shannon Still had a rare opportunity to show the crowd the titan arum’s beautiful and astonishing inner plant parts.

At my not-really-science-minded high school, botany (the study of plants) was taught as a subsection of biology (the study of all life) class. During the botany rotation, we learned a bit about plant names and plant parts, sprouted a few seeds, and dissected a plant. That was about it for my formal plant-science education.

PHOTO: A young girl sniffs the titan arum's removed spathe.

Hands-on plant science at the Garden: a young visitor gets a whiff of Spike’s removed spathe, looking for that telltale stench.

Flash forward a couple of decades and, despite now being an avid gardener, I found myself struggling to keep up with the scientists who were looking deep into Spike’s structures and processes. By the time Dr. Shannon Still and floriculturist Tim Pollak removed the spathe (the frilly bract that never opened) from Spike’s spadix (the flower tower that grew to 6 feet tall), I’d had to learn all about the titan arum’s morphology (see below) and crack open books and laptops to review the basics about male and female flowers.

And then they started talking pollen.

Flashback: What is pollen?

PHOTO: Closeup of pollen emerging from male Amorphophallus titanum flowers.

Tiny squiggles of pollen emerge from the male flowers about three days after Spike’s spathe was removed.

Think of a grain of pollen as a tiny packet of one plant’s genetic material that needs to meet up with another flower’s female genetic material. Technically, pollen is a haploid or gamete, the cell that carries the male half of the plant’s chromosomes.

The covering of a pollen grain is directly related to how the pollen travels to the next flower. That’s why wind-pollinated plants like sweet corn or oak trees have pollen as dry and fine as dust (indeed, the word “pollen” derives from the Latin for fine flour or dust). Orchids have developed waxy balls of pollen (pollinia) that stick to the heads and bodies of the many insects, hummingbirds, and mammals they use as pollinators. And, notoriously, the pollen of ragweed is a tiny spike—the better to hold on to moist spots like the inside of human nasal passages, where the grains never germinate, but cause all sorts of sneezing and snuffling.

Honeybee-pollinated plants (like many fruits, nuts, and vegetables) have evolved along with the bees themselves, offering up both nectar and pollen as food in exchange for the movement of pollen from plant to plant.

Flashback: Why are insects pollinators?

In a word, efficiency. Plants that rely on the wind are at the mercy of the wind: much of the pollen is wasted, as it never lands anywhere near a female flower’s stigma. Ditto for plants that rely on water. Insects are much more reliable, traveling directly from one flower to another, greatly increasing the chance of pollination. Bees are especially reliable, as they prefer to work an entire plant or crop of the same flower rather than skipping from one kind of flower to another. (That’s why attentive beekeepers can get a harvest of “pure” clover or linden blossom honey, rather than a wildflower mix.)

In nature, Spike’s pollinators are carrion beetles and dung flies—insects that would be attracted by the titan arum’s rotten smell and nighttime bloom.

Flashback: How does pollen work?

PHOTO: A single female flower from titan arum Spike lies in Dr. Shannon Still's hand.

Dr. Shannon Still shows the crowd gathered around Spike one of the titan arum’s female flowers .

When a grain of pollen lands in the right place—the tip of the female flower’s reproductive structure, called the stigma—the pollen grain chemically tests the landing ground via proteins that signal genetic compatibility…or not. If deemed to be a good place to germinate, the pollen grain sends a rootlike sprout down into the style (the tube with the stigma on top), eventually reaching all the way down inside the ovary and ovule…where the male chromosomes and female chromosomes meet for fertilization and seed development.

Flash forward: What’s next for Spike?

Spike’s pollen never got the chance to hitch a ride on a carrion beetle’s back to the next titan arum in the rainforest. That’s why “Titan Tim” Pollak collected the pollen when it developed a couple of days after Spike’s operation.

Pollak says that they didn’t collect much of the bright yellow, talc-like powder—just a few test tubes’ worth (further proof that Spike ran out of energy). The pollen will be mixed with powdered milk—yes, powdered milk—in order to absorb moisture and separate the grains. Next, it will be frozen at minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit and stored in the freezer at the Garden’s seed bank.

PHOTO: As the spadix collapses from age, horticulturist Tim Pollak harvests the pollen from Spike's male flowers.

As the spadix collapses from age, horticulturist Tim Pollak harvests the pollen from Spike’s male flowers.

Spike’s pollen could then be shared with other botanical gardens or arboreta that would like to pollinate their blooming titan arums. The American Public Gardens Association has a listserve that shares notice of pollen needed or available; the Chicago Botanic Garden is a contributing member. By sharing Spike’s pollen, the hope is to increase diversity among the rare flowers blooming outside of Sumatra, the titan’s native habitat.

Pollen means that Spike lives on! Can’t wait for the next titan arum to bloom (we have seven more besides Spike in our production area)…and for the next plant flashback.

So you want to be a plant scientist?

PHOTO: Amorphophallus titanum pollen in a test tube.

An Amorphophallus titanum pollen sample is ready to be stored for future pollination.

The science of botany runs deep; at our Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Plant Conservation Science Center, you can see scientists in many of the fields below in action. Got a STEM-minded kid? Perhaps he or she would like to study this list, which was compiled by Boyce Tankersley, director of living plant documentation, in response to the question, “What is the study of flowers called?”

  • Botany is the study of plants.
  • Arboriculture is the study of trees.
  • BioInformatics is the art and science of recording biological information.
  • Cellular biology is the study of cell constituents.
  • Floristics refers to the geographic distribution of plants.
  • Genetics is the study of gene interactions.
  • Horticulture is the art and science of growing plants.
  • Nomenclature is the naming of plants.
  • Paleobotany searches out and examines plant fossils.
  • Plant breeding does what it says.
  • Plant morphology is the study of plant structures.
  • Plant pathology studies plant pathogens and plant interactions.
  • Plant physiology is the study of plant functions such as photosynthesis.
  • Palynology studies both living and fossilized pollen and spores.
  • Taxonomy studies the relationship of one plant to other plants.

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and

Spike’s Teachable Moment

What was happening with Spike? Our scientists investigate.

Karen Z. —  August 30, 2015 — 6 Comments

What an amazing plant science moment occurred in the Semitropical Greenhouse this morning, as a fascinated crowd gathered to see what was happening with Spike, the titan arum.

On Saturday, it was determined that Spike had run out of the energy it needed to continue its bloom cycle. Spike is powered by energy from the sun, stored in its beach-ball-sized corm—a tuber-like underground structure. A tremendous amount of energy goes into producing the single, giant flower structure that a titan can send up in its first decade or so of life (Spike is about 12 years old).

Overheard: “I wish my biology teacher was here.”

As this week’s expected bloom time passed, our science and horticultural staff went into action. Spike wasn’t dying—but the flower structure had stopped maturing, and the spathe did not open. On Friday, Dr. Shannon Still, conservation scientist, and Tim Pollak, the floriculturist who had raised Spike from a seed, peeked inside the frilly spathe to check for pollen.

“If there had been pollen, it would have been all over my hand,” Still said. Pollen’s absence meant that the male and female flowers might not be fully developed. The possibility remained that pollen might still develop, even though the spathe would not open—and THAT led to the decision to remove the “frozen” spathe to see what was happening with the real flowers inside.

Overheard: “We were watching it every day. Every 20 minutes or so.”

First, Still assembled a working kit: scalpel, probes, test tubes, paintbrushes and a “scoopula” (to collect pollen).

At 10 a.m. today, staff gathered for the delicate procedure. Pollak and Still fist bumped…and the operation began. 

As Still began cutting just above the peduncle (stalk), the crowd grew quiet. Dr. Pat Herendeen, senior director, Systematics and Evolutionary Biology, narrated for the crowd. As the spathe started to come away from the towering spadix, the internal color started to be visible.

Left: a cross-section of the spathe reveals the cell structure inside. Right: close-up on the hundreds of male (top) and female (bottom) flowers inside Spike's spathe.

Left: A cross-section of the spathe reveals the cell structure inside. Right: A close-up of the hundreds of male (top) and female (bottom) flowers inside Spike’s spathe.

“The spathe feels a bit like cabbage leaves, with a rubbery texture,” Herendeen said. “The color inside varies from one plant to another in nature. It is dark maroon, the color of rotting meat, which is meant to attract the flies and beetles that are the plant’s natural pollinators.”

Pollak held the spathe steady as Still continued to free it from the stalk. With one last cut, it came free—and the crowd gasped as the inside of the spathe was unfurled and the true flowers at the base of the spadix were revealed—pale rows of bumpy-looking male flowers atop a strip of orange and brown female flowers.

Tim Pollak and Shannon Still make the first cut.

Left: Tim Pollak and Shannon Still make the first cut. Right: Tim Pollak reveals the spathe’s ravishing color.

Herendeen answered as questions flew: The male flowers do not appear to have produced pollen yet. Spike’s fabled scent is only detectable very close up to the spathe—much less apparent than it was earlier in the week.

Cameras focused in on the flower structure, as Still and Pollak carried the two large pieces of the cut-away spathe over to the crowd. Hands reached out for a touch; noses leaned in for a sniff. Spike’s spathe was set out on a gallery table so that everyone could touch and admire it before it begins to wilt.

Overheard: “Spike was the topic of dinner conversation with our two sons every night for the past week.”

While television camera crews stepped in for close-ups on the plant’s flowers, interviewers questioned the scientists: Where does the scent come from? (It’s believed that the tall appendix helps produce the scent, though scientists are also investigating the female flowers themselves.) Would Spike bloom again? (Probably, but the corm would have to recover first, by sending up an annual leaf for a few years to gather more energy.)

Cross-legged on the floor opposite Spike sat Chicago artist Heeyoung Kim, who sketched intently during the entire process. Her intricate pencil markings captured Spike’s pleats and tightly clustered flowers—the beginnings of a botanical illustration that could inform future scientists studying the titan arum’s beautiful structure for years to come.

We have been so thrilled with the intensity of interest in Spike—it’s not every day that crowds gather to watch a plant grow! We’ll continue to keep you posted about possible pollen development, our scientists’ thoughts about Spike’s arrested development, and on the progress of the eight other titan arums now growing in our production greenhouses. 

Left: what a great vibe! Right: Kris Jarantoski explains Spike's spathe to a young visitor.

Left: What a great vibe from the gathered crowd! Right: Kris Jarantoski, executive vice president and director, explains Spike’s spathe to a young visitor.

For more information please visit our titan arum page.

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and