Archives For #CBGAlice

This is the story of a road trip I took with some corpse flowers, the rock stars of the plant world. One of the hallmarks of the Chicago Botanic Garden’s plant collection is the more than 70 species of Amorphophallus. In particular, Amorphophallus titanum, also called the titan arum or corpse flower, has gained attention because of its very large flower and pungent fragrance at bloom time—a hybrid of week-old gym socks and a rotting mouse that you just can’t seem to find in your kitchen.

The Garden began collecting titan arums, or corpse flowers, in 2003. There’s a worldwide conservation effort to preserve the species, as it is considered “vulnerable”—unless the circumstances threatening its survival and reproduction improve, the species is likely to become endangered.

Our titan arums began blooming about three years ago. The first one, Spike, failed to bloom, but shortly after, in September 2015, Alice the Amorphophallus bloomed in all of its stinky glory. At one point, we had two, Java and Sumatra, in their bloom cycle at the same time.

Titan Twins Java and Sumatra

Titan Twins Java and Sumatra

Over time, our family of titans has grown. Many of the Garden’s corpse flowers share the same lineage, and the Garden decided to share some of our titan wealth with other botanical institutions. It is important to build genetic diversity in our collection and at other botanical institutions and to understand more about these plants through genetic assessment work being conducted by Garden scientists.

All aboard the Titan Express!

All aboard the Titan Express!

I volunteered to captain the Titan Express, which would deliver the titan arums to their new homes: “Pat” to the New York Botanical Garden, “Sprout,” which bloomed in April 2016 at the Garden, to Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania, and “Kris” to Chanticleer Garden in Pennsylvania.

We departed the Garden on August 17. All aboard the Titan Express!

My plan was to make it to the New York Botanical Garden by 2 p.m. the next day. Of course, I had several hundreds of miles and the George Washington Bridge to deal with. Even though I left Ohio at 4 a.m., I arrived at NYBG two hours late. Marc Hachadourian, director of the Nolen Greenhouses and curator of the Orchid Collection, graciously met me on a Saturday and more graciously waited two additional hours for my arrival.

Titan Road Trip - Marc_Hachadourian

Marc Hachadourian, director of the Nolen Greenhouses and curator of the Orchid Collection.

Titan Road Trip - Wawa Gas Station

The iconic Wawa convenience store—its coffee rivals Starbucks.

With Pat safe and sound, I headed to the New Jersey Turnpike. As much as Philadelphia and Pennsylvania are identified by the Phillies, Eagles, cheesesteaks, and the Liberty Bell, the iconic Wawa convenience store dots the landscape and its coffee rivals Starbucks.

Titan Road Trip - Deleware

Welcome to Delaware

Since I was back in my old “stomping grounds,” I tried to add in visits to see friends, family, and colleagues, as well as take care of some additional botanical business. I conducted a national collections review for the University of Delaware Botanic Gardens in Newark, Delaware.

Feeling weak after a long day of critical thinking about Styrax and Baptisia (two collections under consideration for a national status), I retreated to the regionally famous University of Delaware Creamery for some toffee-flavored sustenance.

Titan No. 2, Sprout, was destined just north of the Delaware border to the Longwood Gardens.

After Longwood, I headed to the beautiful Chanticleer Garden in Wayne, Pennsylvania. Intern Jack McCoy and grounds manager Jeff Lynch stand among some younger titans they received from the Chicago Botanic Garden a couple years ago.

Titan Road Trip - Chanticleer Garden

Andrew Bunting delivers Sprout to the Longwood Gardens.

While in the area, I had a chance to visit Doe Run, which was the famed garden of plantsman, Sir John Thouron, and which is now owned by the owner of Urban Outfitters, Richard Hayne. The estate sits in beautiful Chester County, which is rolling countryside with many equestrian-related activities. While Philadelphia and Wilmington, Delaware, create a significant megalopolis, there remains a reasonable amount of farmland and a very pastoral countryside.

Titan Road Trip - Doe Run

Chester County

Farmland in Pennsylvania

Farmland in Pennsylvania

Titan Road Trip - Andrews House

Bunting’s house, in Swarthmore

Wrapping up the few days on the Titan Express on the East Coast, I had to stop by the Scott Arboretum of Swarthmore College, where I worked for 27 years. And while in Swarthmore, I headed to my house, Belvidere, which I still own, but is rented to a horticulturist at the Scott Arboretum, Josh Coceano.

After several long days of titan tribulations and adventures, a stop at a Delaware drinking hole was in the cards.

I made one last stop to see my mom in Haddon Heights, New Jersey. She is an avid gardener and could appreciate my stories of Andrew’s Excellent Amorphophallus Adventure.

Titan Road Trip - Andrews Mom

Bunting’s mom in Haddon Heights, New Jersey

More than 1,000 miles later, the Titan Express made its last stop.

©2018 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

In the past year, more than 181 million people learned about Spike, Alice the Amorphophallus, and Sprout—the Chicago Botanic Garden’s titan arums (Amorphophallus titanum) that entered a bloom cycle—through various media sources.

Now even more people may have the chance to learn about the unique corpse flower from seedlings sowed at the Garden that have been shared throughout the United States.

It all began about 12 years ago when the Garden procured titan arum bulbs and seeds, which we carefully cultivated until they were ready to flower. With the bloom cycles of Alice and Sprout, we wanted to try to pollinate our plants. In nature, titan arums are pollinated by carrion beetles. Since such insects don’t exist at the Garden, we needed to do the work ourselves. As Spike, Alice, and Sprout are thought to be very closely related (with very similar genetic makeup), we speculated that fertilization with pollen from our first titan—Spike—to Alice would not occur: they were “self incompatible”—a term that often describes a plant species that is unable to be fertilized by its own pollen. So in addition to Spike’s pollen, we looked for genetically different pollen. Fortunately, the Denver Botanic Gardens also had a titan arum (“Stinky”) in bloom last year, and they sent us some of Stinky’s pollen, which we used to pollinate Alice.

After the pollination, Alice developed large, plump red fruits. These fruits were harvested and cleaned, and Deb Moore, part of the Garden’s plant production team, sowed the seeds. The result: about 40 quick-growing seedlings—each a single titan arum leaf. 

We decided to keep a few seedlings for our own uses, but we really wanted to share these young plants with the broader botanical community. We contacted institutions in the American Public Gardens Association to see if any would be interested in acquiring an Amorphophallus titanum.

We had great response. Seedlings were sent to 27 institutions (see Google map above), including the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden; the JC Raulston Arboretum at North Carolina State University; the Botanic Garden of Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts; Ganna Walska Lotusland in Santa Barbara, California; the University of Idaho Arboretum and Botanical Garden in Moscow, Idaho; Smithsonian Gardens in Washington, D.C.; University of California-Davis Department of Plant Biology; and of course, three seedlings went to the Denver Botanic Gardens to grow alongside Stinky. 


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

I have an update on Alice the Amorphophallus: Alice has been repotted and has a leaf sprout. Yes, Alice is alive and well, happily growing in the production greenhouses here at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

(Many of you might remember we successfully pollinated Alice with pollen from Stinky, donated to us from the Denver Botanic Gardens’ own Amorphophallus titanum.)

Alice followed a normal growth cycle—as it would have in its native habitat on the island of Sumatra, Indonesia—producing fruit and seeds. This past summer, the flower stalk with the remaining fruit began to wither and collapse as Alice went into dormancy. (We successfully sowed and germinated the seeds, and were rewarded with several dozen seedlings.) On Tuesday, September 13, we removed Alice from the wooden crate she had been living in for the past 24 months, pleased to observe a healthy corm—and a new leaf shoot emerging from the top! We loosened the corm below the soil surface in order to repot it and record its current measurements, and got a few pretty interesting photos. 

First, we washed the corm thoroughly so we could examine it better and get accurate measurements of the corm’s weight and size. We looked for areas of rot, if any, and pulled off any new bulblets that may have developed. (We removed and potted up two new small bulblets—mini-corms—from Alice at this repotting.)

PHOTO: Amorphophallus corm before repotting.

Here is Alice the Amorphophallus as removed from the crate, before washing.

PHOTO: The freshly washed titan arum corm awaits weighing.

The freshly washed titan arum corm awaits weighing.

One big observation was that the corm had actually decreased in size and weight. The big cracks seen in the images below are from the corm rapidly shrinking in size. This is from the large amount of energy (starch and sugars) used for Alice to bloom, and in the production of fruit and seeds. Rather than losing mass and becoming spongy, the post-bloom and fruiting corm is the same density, but smaller in size—both diameter and height—by several inches.

PHOTO: Titan arum corm with emerging leaf sprout and roots.

Splits in the titan arum’s corm are from its rapid decrease in size as energy was used up.

PHOTO: Closeup of a large split in the titan arum corm.

Close-up of a large split in the corm

Now Alice is getting ready to begin the life cycle all over again as a leaf. A ring of new roots at the top of the corm is to support the growth of the emerging leaf bud. The roots do not form or add to a new corm—new corms come from the main corm as bulblets on the side and bottom of the original corm.

The corm has been repotted in a mixture of peat, coir (coconut fiber), composted bark, and perlite, back in its original crate, which still has room to grow in it. 

PHOTO: Alice the Amorphophallus gets ready to leaf out, almost exactly a year after blooming.

Alice the Amorphophallus gets ready to leaf out, almost exactly a year after blooming.

Here are some interesting details on the corm: 

  • Corm size: 13 inches in diameter and 7.5 inches in height
  • Corm weight: 17.5 pounds (weight at last repotting in 2014 was 28.2 pounds)
  • Base of old stem (top growth plate): 4.75 inches in diameter
  • Bottom growth plate: 3.5 inches in diameter
  • New growth/leaf shoot: 2 inches tall (still underground) with a healthy rosette of new roots
  • Surface of the corm: very lumpy and warty looking

I can’t believe it has been a year since we all gathered in the Semitropical Greenhouse at the Chicago Botanic Garden to celebrate Alice’s bloom and stink. What an event that was! Alice will bloom another day, maybe three to five years from now; we will just have to wait and see. But in the meantime, it’s likely another one of the titan arums in our collection will bloom before then. 


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Thousands of visitors to the Orchid Show at the Chicago Botanic Garden have been delighted to see a special guest star at the Tropical Greenhouse: Alice the Amorphophallus is on display, in full and glorious fruit! 

Visitors are asking: why are some of the berries on the titan arum (or corpse flower) skinny and small, while others are big and plump?

Dr. Pat Herendeen and “Titan Tim” Pollak plucked a few of each in mid-February, X-rayed them, and performed a bit of berry surgery to get the answer.

PHOTO: An x-ray view of titan arum fruit pollinated by Spike (Chicago Botanic Garden).

An x-ray view of titan arum fruit pollinated by Spike (Chicago Botanic Garden, 2015).

PHOTO: An x-ray view of titan arum fruit pollinated by Stinky (Denver Botanic Gardens, 2015).

An x-ray view of titan arum fruit pollinated by Stinky (Denver Botanic Gardens, 2015).

PHOTO: Pat Herendeen examines titan arum seed under microscope; gloves protect his hands from oxalate crystals in the fruit.

Dr. Pat Herendeen examines titan arum seed under microscope; gloves protect his hands from oxalate crystals in the fruit.

X-rays showed that seeds had developed in the larger berries—those pollinated with pollen from Stinky, the titan arum that recently bloomed at the Denver Botanic Gardens. There were no signs of seeds in the smaller berries, which were pollinated by Spike, the Garden’s first titan arum. Dissection confirmed it; the large berries are ripening, while the smaller berries are sterile.

Spike and Stinky contributed all the pollen used for Alice’s pollination last September. About one-third of Alice’s female flowers received Spike’s pollen; about two-thirds received Stinky’s—and you can see the difference visually.

Garden scientists believe that Spike and Alice, who are siblings, are too closely related genetically to create healthy seeds, while Stinky, thought to be more distantly related, provided appropriate genetic material for proper reproduction.

You can see the difference on Alice’s infructescence (fruit stalk), too: the stalk is curving. As the chubby, seed-filled fruits from Stinky’s pollen continue to ripen and enlarge, the structure is bending over the small, non-viable fruits from Spike’s pollen. 

Each of the berries produced by Stinky’s pollen will make one or two seeds. It will take several more months for the fruits to ripen and turn deep red—a signal that seeds may finally be collected. 

PHOTO: One fruit resulting from Spike’s pollen is on the left; two fruits from Stinky’s pollen is in the center and on the right. The fruit in the center has been opened and the two seeds removed. The large seed on the right, though still unripened, reveals what the final titan arum (Amorphophallus titanum) seed will look like.

One fruit resulting from Spike’s pollen is on the left; two fruits from Stinky’s pollen are in the center and on the right. The fruit in the center has been opened and the two seeds removed. The large seed on the right, though still unripened, reveals what the final titan arum (Amorphophallus titanum) seed will look like.

What’s Next for Alice’s Seeds?

Because the titan arum’s natural habitat in Indonesia has degraded so drastically—estimates say 72 percent has been lost—scientific and academic institutions like the Chicago Botanic Garden have become safe havens in which titan arums can grow and multiply.

After Alice’s fully-ripened fruits are collected, the seeds will be extracted, cleaned, stored, and shared. Alice’s seeds will contribute to titan conservation through:

  • Seed sharing between gardens, universities, and other institutions.
  • Raising new plants here at the Garden to bolster our titan collection.
  • Researching DNA to increase diversity among titan plants.

 

Relive the excitement of Alice’s bloom! Our blogs and videos track Alice’s progress from bud to fruit.


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Alice the Amorphophallus, our titan arum (or corpse flower) is fruiting! Alice is on display at a new location in the Tropical Greenhouse here at the Chicago Botanic Garden so that all of our visitors may come see the beautiful, dark orange fruit that is developing.

As many of you know, we manually pollinated Alice’s flowers on the morning of September 29, 2015, after the plant began blooming late the previous evening. We used the pollen we had collected from Alice’s “brother” Spike a month earlier, plus pollen from the Denver Botanic Gardens’ bloom, Stinky (in the same bloom cycle as Spike). About half of the developing fruits are from Spike’s pollen and the other half are from Stinky’s pollen.

PHOTO: The remains of the spadix have been removed—showing its fibrous interior—as the titan arum's fruit continues to mature.

The remains of the spadix have been removed—showing its fibrous interior—as the titan arum’s fruit continues to mature.

It can take five to six months for the fruit to ripen, and the fruiting process is quite beautiful to observe, as the fruits change from a gold color to orange, and finally to a dark red color once ripened. After the 400+ fruits are ripe, we will harvest the fruits, and extract the two seeds that are produced by each fruit. We hope to germinate a few of these seeds in order to grow more titan arums to add to our collection—and increase the age diversity of the collection as well. (As many of our current plants have the same seed or corm source, they are all roughly the same age.) Some of the seeds will be shared and distributed to other botanical gardens, universities, and educational institutions as requested. The rest of the seeds harvested will be stored in our seed bank freezer in the Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Plant Conservation Science Center. This will help with increasing the genetic diversity of the species and continue to aid with plant conservation efforts. 

I realize there are many questions that you may have regarding Alice’s fruit, many of which were asked during the time that Alice (and Spike) were on display last year.

DIAGRAM: Life Cycle of the Titan Arum (Amorphophallus titanum).The titan arum is the largest non-branched inflorescence in the world, and it is found in the dense jungles of Sumatra. An inflorescence is a cluster of flowers—like a bouquet. The inflorescence of the titan arum is composed of two parts: The outer, purple, vase-like sheath (a single leaf) is called the spathe. It protects the inner tube-like spike called the spadix, which attracts pollinators. The flowers are small and are located on the base of the spadix. There are hundreds of them.

What does it mean that Alice is producing fruit?

The fruiting process of a titan arum is just like that of other flowering plants. After a flower is pollinated, the fleshy fruit develops (think of a cherry or apricot). The fruits of the titan arum grow from a yellow-gold to a more orange-red tone. When the fruit is fully ripened, about six months after pollination, it will have a soft outer flesh that is dark red in color. After fruiting, the plant will return to dormancy, and send up a leaf in its next growth cycle.

Does Alice still smell? 

No. Alice is not producing any odor and it is not blooming. Odor is only produced within the first 24–48 hours during the initial bloom. After flowering, Alice’s spathe shriveled and dried out, and was removed one week after the initial bloom. The spadix began to collapse five days after pollination; it was removed two months later after it was completely dried up. 

PHOTO: Titan arum (Amorphophallus titanum) leaf bud emerging from the soil.

A young leaf sprout displayed next to Alice’s fruit emerges from a small, young corm. A leaf stalk from a mature (older) corm would dwarf visitors, and would be heavy enough to be immovable during its growth cycle.

Will Alice bloom again?

Yes, but not in the near future. After the fruits mature, the plant will go dormant for a period of time, then produce a new leaf every year for a number of years. Once the corm’s energy has been replenished, Alice will bloom again. However, we now have 13 titan arums in the Garden’s collection, and we expect that another will bloom within the next year or two. We do not know when, as it is hard to predict—even in nature. The plant needs to recover and build up energy before it can flower again.  

What did you do with pollen from Alice?

Garden conservation scientists collected pollen from Alice during her bloom. Several small holes were cut in the spathe for manual pollination to take place. The same access holes were used to collect pollen later in the day. The pollen is now in cold storage to use in pollinating the next titan arum bloom at the Garden. We also share pollen with other botanic gardens, universities, and educational institutions.

Today, the Garden has 13 titan arums in its collection. But the increase in number is not the result of pollination. Just like many of our spring bulbs (such as narcissus, canna, and dahlias), the tuber, or bulb, that produces the flower for the titan arum grew additional bulbs that we hope will produce fully-grown plants.

PHOTO: Rhinoceros hornbill (Buceros rhinoceros).

Rhinoceros hornbill (Buceros rhinoceros) ©2007 Derek Ramsey (Ram-Man) (Self-photographed) [GFDL 1.2 or CC BY-SA 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons.

Is the fruit edible?

In nature, the fruit is eaten by the rhinoceros hornbill (Buceros rhinoceros). Attracted by the brightly colored covering, the birds eat the fleshy fruits and excrete the hard, resistant inner seeds. The fruit is not suitable for human consumption.

What does the titan arum look like before it blooms?

This plant produces one leaf at a time for several years. The leaves start out small and get progressively larger each year. We have several in our production area now. The leaves photosynthesize and allow the plant to store energy in a large (sometimes weighing up to 40 pounds) underground tuber called a corm. Each leaf lasts about a year before it dyes back and goes dormant. Because flowering takes so much energy, it takes several years before the plant has enough energy stored to produce a flower. Alice took 12 years to come to flower!

Come out and see Alice and her fruit now through April 8, 2016. To learn more about Alice and Spike, read our previous blog posts!


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org