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).
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”).
We hope you enjoy your visit with #CBGAlice! Please check our website at chicagobotanic.org/titan for info on the bloom. The live webcam will remain on through Sunday, October 4, 2015.
“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.
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.
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.)
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.
To all of Spike’s Garden friends
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.”
Did you have a flashback to science class when you saw Spike, the titan arum? I sure did.
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.
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?
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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
“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.
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.