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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

“Titan Tim” Pollak here, with some thoughts about Spike the corpse flower as he goes into dormancy. I never thought I’d call myself “Titan Tim,” but Spike has forever changed my life—as he did life here at the Chicago Botanic Garden—during the four weeks he was on display in our Semitropical Greenhouse.

Lyn Skor Quote

Spike brought the nation’s—and even the world’s—attention to the Garden, as we waited for our first-ever flowering titan to open up in all its stinky and colorful glory. The event—and I am proud to call this an event—brought more than 76,000 visitors to see Spike (8,200 people alone on Sunday, August 30, when we manually opened up the flower), making it by far the largest event in the Chicago Botanic Garden’s history.) In addition, there were 948 television and radio stories broadcast and 126 online reports, reaching an unbelievable 173,884,617 estimated people!

I myself did 42 interviews regarding Spike, including television, radio, print, and internet. And I wrote seven blogs along the way, telling the story, history, origins, care, and details about the smell of Amorphophallus titanum, the world’s largest unbranched inflorescence.

During all of the “Spike-mania,” I was often asked if I was getting any sleep. My answer was “Not so much!” Spike became a member of my family, a sort of adopted son that I referred to as “him,” “he,” “mine,” and “ours” in conversation. During those weeks, Spike became my life, 24/7, day and night…and I became “Titan Tim,” for sure.

Julie Ferraro Quote

The power of one plant…Wow!

“When is he going to bloom?” That was the number one question on everyone’s mind, both at the Garden and from visitors. As you know by now, Spike didn’t have the energy to bloom by himself, as we thought he would. (Read the story about it here.)

Nicole Dh Quote

Finally, we decided to manually open the spathe to check on the viability of the male and female individual flowers inside. If healthy enough, we could attempt to pollinate the female flowers with donor pollen from recent titans at the Denver Botanic Gardens and California’s Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. We also wanted to collect the pollen produced by Spike’s male flowers, to preserve some here for the future, to donate to other institutions, and to contribute to global genetic diversity.

We knew we would be giving our visitors a very rare opportunity to see the internal flower structures up close—to observe, touch, feel, and even smell a procedure that has rarely ever been done. What a teaching moment it became! (Spike taught the world about pollination.) At that point, horticulture and science met in the transparency of the public eye. Our horticultural staff had nurtured and cared for Spike for 12 years. Our scientists had long been working to bring attention to the endangered and threatened plant species of the world. And the public was curious and enthusiastic about learning the facts about a “huge, rotten, and rare” phenomenon.

That morning, I experienced the power of one plant—an experience that will stay with me for the rest of my life. Despite the disappointment, Spike was a success: he was a rock star and a hero to the botanical world.

Melissa Perrin Quote

To all of Spike’s Garden friends

To still have people coming by and asking questions well into the week after Spike's spathe was removed was pretty remarkable.

To still have people coming by and asking questions well into the week after Spike’s spathe was removed was pretty remarkable.

The other amazing experience for me was with Spike’s visitors, fans, and “groupies.” He had such a large following, and I often saw some of the same people visit day after day! I heard and received so many positive comments from visitors. People said that Spike was part of daily dinner conversations—that they would converse about when he was going to bloom, how tall he was going to get, and so on. Spike had become a household name! Many of you were devoted watchers of the streaming live cam on our website and on YouTube, and many wrote to say that you saw me every morning checking on him, measuring him, touching him, and smelling him. It was wonderful and humbling, and it made me feel like a proud papa to Spike!

I want to share with you just a few of the many wonderful comments I received via e-mail and in response to my blogs:

From Don H.: “How very cool to experience something so astounding after years of care. I can’t wait to experience it!!”

From Richard F.: “The live cam provides a wonderful tool to watch the flowering progress 24/7. Thank you for this initiative.”

From Chicago Catt: “It’s fascinating. Thank you for bringing this to Chicago!”

From Marjorie R.: “The anticipation is killing me! I’m going to be one of those people showing up at 2 a.m. I have been watching the webcam online every day at 2 a.m. to check on him!”

From Nicole R.: “Tim, I need to know: Are you sleeping with Spike these days? …Please assure us you are there, encouraging it, protecting it, and maybe even hugging it from time to time.”

From Heeyoung K.: “Dear Tim, First of all, I was amazed how you and your team turned Spike’s sad ‘failure’ to bloom into (an) even more wonderful learning experience with heartwarming support from so many people. I would say that was (the most) monumental event that has ever happened to a ‘mere’ plant :).”

From Lynn Q.: “Even though Spike didn’t bloom as we all hoped…the whole ‘Spike experience’ orchestrated by the Garden and all of the specialists working with Spike was just fantastic. I loved learning about these plants through frequent visits and reading the information on the website. Best of all was the opportunity to monitor growth through the live cam: we viewed Spike from time to time at home. Thus, I write to thank you and encourage you on the next efforts with these amazing plants!”

Thanks to all who wrote and reached out to me during Spike’s time on display. From myself and all of us at the Garden, we simply can’t thank you enough.

The silver lining in the story of Spike is that we have more titans to come. Seven other Amorphophallus titanum plants are in various stages of leaf, dormancy, and growth in our production area, and sooner or later another will be on display for you all to come and experience. Keep checking our website for updates on these rare and unusual plants.

The corpse flower will return in the future…and so will “Titan Tim.”

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and

Unwanted wiggler discovered!

About a month ago, one of our horticulturists called me out to look at a groundcover planting that was being heavily disturbed by worms. At first look, I thought nothing of it—maybe it was increased surface worm activity from all the rain. A couple of weeks later, they were still very active, and the groundcover was actually floating on worm castings! We rolled it up to expose many worms. When I picked up a worm, it flipped out of my hand and wriggled away quickly, snake-like—not like a typical worm.

Since this activity seemed strange, I asked our senior ecologist to have a look at the crazy-acting worms. Coincidentally, he identified them as “crazy worms” (Amynthas agrestis), an invasive worm on his watch-for list that has never been found in Illinois. Samples were sent to the University of Illinois for confirmation, and the Illinois Department of Agriculture and Illinois Department of Natural Resources were informed. Our find has been confirmed—along with another find in DuPage County—and a potential find in Wilmette is being investigated. The crazy worm has been in the United States for many years in many of the southeastern states (and in the Smoky Mountains). In 2013, it was found in Wisconsin. DuPage and our find are the first confirmed for Illinois.

PHOTO: Crazy Worm (Amynthas agrestis).

Crazy worm (Amynthas agrestis)

Why is this worm bad?

  • They out-compete and push out our common European earthworms.
  • They multiply very quickly.
  • They devour soil organic matter and drastically change soil structure. This has a huge impact on forest ecosystems as well as on residential and urban ornamental plantings.

How do I identify the crazy worm?

  • They are found near the soil surface.
  • When touched, they respond immediately with a crazy flipping and jumping reaction.
  • They have a fast, snake-like movement.
  • Unlike a common European worm, they have a milky white flat band (clitellum).
  • They are 4 to 8 inches long.
  • A worm may lose its tail when handled.

What should I do if I think I have found the crazy worm?

  • Report the find to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources or Illinois Department of Agriculture.
  • To learn more about the crazy worm, just do a Google search on Amynthas agrestis (crazy worm or jumping worm).

Currently there are no treatments recommended for management of the crazy worm. Education and slowing the spread is the current course of action. The crazy worm’s primary means of spread is through the movement of plants with soil.

The Garden is a member of the Sentinel Plant Network, a group that unites botanic gardens in monitoring and providing education on exotic, invasive plant pests and pathogens, and works in partnership with the National Plant Diagnostic Network (NPDN).

If you are a plant and bug person like me, please consider becoming a NPDN First Detector and help be on the lookout for these exotic, invasive plant pests and pathogens. The NPDN offers an online training course to become a First Detector at It’s free, and upon completion, you even get a printable certificate!

©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