Archives For corpse flower cultivation

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

The Chicago Botanic Garden is on #TitanWatch. That’s right: if you visit the Garden’s Semitropical Greenhouse, you will see Sprout, the latest corpse flower from the Garden’s collection of 13 titan arums to begin a bloom cycle. 

PHOTO: Corpse flowers (Amorphophallus titanum) on display in a variety of life stages: in fruit, leaf, and bud.

Our corpse flowers (Amorphophallus titanum) are now on display in a variety of life stages: in fruit, leaf, and imminent bloom.

You might remember Spike and Alice in 2015: Spike failed to bloom but provided so much excitement; and Alice the Amorphophallus brought visitors to the Garden at all hours to see, and smell, a corpse flower in bloom. Now we are all watching Sprout to see if the corpse flower—known as a titan arum (Amorphophallus titanum)— will produce a huge, rotten bloom. Follow the progress of #CBGSprout on our corpse flower webcam and check our website for updates.

We learned a lot about corpse flowers in the last few months, and in the Semitropical Greenhouse, there are corpse flowers at three different stages on display: in the middle of a bloom cycle (Sprout); a non-blooming titan arum leaf; and a pollinated and fruiting titan arum (it’s Alice!). 

Here’s what you need to know as you watch Sprout grow:

  1. The corpse flower is one of the largest and rarest flowering plants in the world. It takes seven to ten years for a single corpse flower to produce a flowering structure (inflorescence). While other corpse flowers in cultivation have bloomed around the world recently, having more than one plant bloom in such a short time is uncommon. Watch for these signs the titan arum bloom is starting.
  2. Corpse flowers smell bad. Really bad. Peak stink time is usually very late at night.
  3. Speaking of night, that’s when corpse flowers usually bloom. And once they bloom, the bloom lasts 24 to 36 hours. Want a sneak peek? View our last titan arum bloom.
  4. If Sprout blooms, the Garden will stay open until 2 a.m. so visitors can experience the corpse flower bloom up close (last Garden entry will be 1 a.m.). Watch the live corpse flower webcam, check the blog (subscribe today), and follow the Garden on Facebook and #CBGSprout on Twitter to get the latest information. 
  5. Corpse flowers are BIG. In their natural habitats, they can reach 10 to 12 feet tall with a bloom diameter of 5 feet. In cultivation, they typically reach 6 to 8 feet in height, but all are different. 
  6. Corpse flowers are unpredictable. When the Garden was watching Spike, the first titan arum, even the horticulturists were surprised that the plant did not flower.
  7. Corpse flowers are native to Sumatra, but Sprout was grown here from seed the Garden received in 2008 from the University of California Botanical Garden at Berkeley. Learn about the titan arum’s native habitat.
  8. The corpse flower includes the corm, which may or may not go on to produce a flower; the spadix, which is the tall flower spike; the spathe, which is a single, frilly, modified leaf that enwraps the spadix; the petiole, which is the leaf stalk; and the branch-like rachis, which supports the many leaflets. Find more diagrams and information in our titan arum educator resourcesILLUSTRATION: Titan arum leaf parts diagram.
  9. Corpse flowers that bloom in the wild attract pollinators like carrion beetles and flesh flies. Once the plant is successfully pollinated, it develops olive-shaped, red-orange berries. Read more about titan arum pollination.
  10. Corpse flowers need protection. The Garden’s conservation work ensures that plants like these survive and thrive. Studying seeds from Sprout, Spike, and Alice enables scientists and horticulturists at universities, conservatories, and other institutions increase the genetic diversity of the species. See how we are studying our titan arum fruit.

PHOTO: The mature fruit of this Amorphophallus titanum is now being collected for seed.

The mature fruit of Alice the Amorphophallus is now being collected for seed.


We will be announcing extended viewing hours when #CBGSprout blooms. Spring is here, however—see what else is currently in bloom


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org