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The secret life of the titan arum
The titan arum was discovered in the steamy rainforests of Sumatra by the Italian botanist Odoardo Beccari in 1878. The plant requires a high level of humidity and a constant heat of at least 24 °C. During one growing season, the large tuber, which can become as heavy as 130 kg, produces either a huge 2 to 6 m high leaf or a giant 1.5 to 3 m high ‘flower’. Botanically speaking, it is an inflorescence, given that it is composed of many small flowers.
A shameless pillar
The inflorescence consists of a giant upright yellowish flowering spadix - its scientific name Amorphophallus titanum literally means deformed giant penis - surrounded by a dark red spathe with graceful folds. At the base of the spadix, there is a band of small pinkish female flowers with a strip of pale yellow male flowers above it. Once the female flowers are ready for pollination, the spadix warms up and begins to emit a disgusting scent that is somewhere between a cadaver, rancid cheese and rotten fish. This is why the Indonesians call it the ‘corpse plant’.
Like all plants, the titan arum blooms in order to reproduce. Pollen must be brought from one plant to another. However, in nature the plants grow far apart and bloom only rarely; on average every three years. Furthermore, they flower for a mere 72 hours, after which the inflorescence dies off. The plant must be pollinated during that short period. Which explains the plant’s incredible fragrance.
A swarm of sweat bees
The scent attracts sweat bees from far and wide, which believe they have found a cadaver. Some will have just visited another distant titan arum and are still covered in pollen. They descend deep into the inflorescence, thereby pollinating the female flowers. The shape of the inflorescence prevents them from immediately escaping. Many hours later, the male flowers are ripe and release their pollen. The pollen-covered bees subsequently follow the scent of another titan arum located kilometres away and the story repeats itself. The fertilised female flowers grow into red berries that are eaten by birds, which go on to spread the seeds through their faeces.
Good news for threatened species
Half of the island of Sumatra has already been deforested, as a result of which the population of orangutans has decreased by 80%, and the situation of the titan arum is not much better... Today, botanical gardens are getting increasingly better at cultivating the titan arum. Which increases the chances of survival of this plant species.
The first bloom of a titan arum in Belgium took place from 5 to 7 August 2008 and attracted 8,000 spectators. During the bloom of 2011, 2013 and 2016, 2017 and 2018, even more people followed the bloom via Facebook. But did you know that wild arums also grow in Belgian forests? Its small (30 cm) but equally captivating cousin is called the spotted arum (Arum maculatum) and can be seen blooming in old forests every spring, including in the Botanic Garden.