Woody Redoux: The Return of the Titan

May 8, 2013

 

Woody’s projected bloom date: May 14-16. Check for daily updates and streaming live video from the greenhouse.

Backstory: When Ohio State’s first Titan Arum (named Woody, for the incomparable Woody Hayes) bloomed in April 2011, it was an epic occasion. Thousands thronged to see—and smell—him and waited patiently in line for their (in nearly all cases) first-ever chance to have the total Titan experience.

One gentleman, who had driven across the state with his grandson, to be among the earliest greenhouse visitors, viewed Woody with awe bordering on reverence. He said, “I’ve waited my whole life to see one of these and never thought I would get to.”

Nearly everyone had a similar reaction. There is simply nothing else like it and your chances to view one up close with its smell in your nostrils is remote. It is unforgettable.

But a plant with three names: Amorphophallus Titanum (its official, Latin name) Titan Arum, (the shortened, familiar name) and Corpse Flower (a very apt moniker), has to be something very special.

Woody was one of four other Titan Arum seeds that greenhouse manager Joan Leonard planted at the same time in November 2001. Back in the spring of 2011, they remained very tall tree-like leaves looming over their blooming sibling, biding their time.  

Sure enough—although nothing is ever sure with a Titan—last May one of those siblings bloomed. Named Jesse, for the great Jesse Owens, he had a much shorter bloom time than Woody. Like his name sake, he raced past folks in a short burst of glory.

Now three years later— Woody Returns.

It appears that Ohio State is now THE Titan Arum Destination Spot. And folks who missed Woody One and his brother Jesse have an unbelievable third chance.  There will be return visitors too, because odd though it might seem, Titans have groupies. More than one visitor to the Biological Sciences Greenhouse has said, “I will travel anywhere, any time to see a Titan.”

But, most people will never have the chance to see—and smell—this blooming malodorous miracle. 

Why DO people get excited about the blooming of a Titan Arum?

So many reasons:

It is the world’s largest leaf;

Even in cultivation the leaf can grow more than 9 feet tall and sport the girth of a hefty man’s thigh;

It is exceptionally rare;

Plus, that pervasive smell of unrefrigerated meat it exudes while blooming is not-to-be missed..

All of this can stir the public imagination--and put a bit of unforgettable stink in its nose.

And, who doesn’t want to have the bragging rights to being in the same room with a celebrity who rarely shows itself in public.

In the United States, fewer than 50 institutions (including Ohio State) have been able to grow and bloom a Titan since its introduction to these shores in 1937.

It is even rare in its native habitat, the tropical rainforests of Indonesia’s Sumatran Islands.

There, it can soar to 20 feet or more, but because it cannot self-pollinate, it is not about to overrun other vegetation.

So only a lucky few on the planet have ever seen a Titan; fewer still have seen one in bloom.

Titans are very difficult to grow, even for experienced plant scientists, and much harder yet to coax into bloom. Less than a hundred and fifty or so have bloomed worldwide in the past 130 years. Given how remarkable and rare they are; it is little wonder that the chance to see one in bloom is an event.

To Propagate--or Not to Propagate?

For Leonard, typically there is no question. "Since they can’t self-pollinate, there is the major problem of 'getting pregnant.' So, if you can, you do, although, we probably won’t pollinate Woody2, since he has barely recovered his weight loss from his first bloom.”

Last year's pollination of Jesse was successful using both fresh pollen from “Clive” (who bloomed at the Niagara Conservatory about a week before Jesse) and from frozen pollen collected from “Woody” in 2011.

Leonard relates that it took six months for the fruits to mature; the first fruits were collected in November. Then, over several weeks, fruits were collected and sent to dozens of universities and botanic gardens across the US and Canada. Each fruit contains 1-2 seeds. "By the way," Leonard said, "these fruits are eaten by hornbills—a bird--and are not edible by humans.

"We have already successfully germinated several seeds from Jessie and have more planted. Germination takes 3-4 months," Leonard said, and added, "Jesse’s fruit stalk collapsed just a few weeks ago and is going into dormancy for a well-deserved rest!"

In the wild, lacking a Joan Leonard, they are pollinated by sweat bees, carrion beetles, and flies, which are attracted by the rancid odor, said to be detectable from a quarter-mile away.

Once successfully pollinated, they face an arduous gestation period.

The Titan Arum emerges from and stores energy in a huge underground stem called a tuber.

The plant’s blooming schedule is completely unpredictable; it usually takes several years for it to accumulate sufficient energy to summon the power to blast up a bloom—if it ever does. And, a re-bloom of the tuber, such as with Woody, can be 2-5 years, although there is no guarantee.

The Titan Arum is under additional population pressure as its only native habitat is rapidly being destroyed, primarily due to illegal logging and land conversion for agriculture use to feed a growing population.

Seventy percent is already gone and Titans are listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

So, the race is on to save it from extinction.

Leonard intends to do her part, “This is THE flagship species for any serious botanical garden or conservatory,” she said.

Timing is Everything:

Not being able to self-pollinate, conservatories need access to pollen from other Titans to propagate their plants.

Typically, blooms last from 1 – 3 days. But, the plant must be pollinated on the evening of its first day of bloom for propagation to be successful.

Once it has been pollinated, the bloom begins to shrink and die. This was strikingly the case with Jesse, who began to shrink almost immediately.

Leonard is cheerfully willing to sacrifice an extra day or more of one plant’s bloom if it helps to save the species.

A Rose It Is Not

Its characteristic foul stench, which earned it the corpse flower nickname, certainly makes it unlikely that it would end up as a floral decoration of any kind—that, and its spectacular size.

However; for some, that distinct “stinkiness,” combined with everything else that makes it unique, is part of its attraction. Few people stand in line for hours or travel the world to see a rose in bloom. After all, a rose is a rose is a rose, but a Titan Arum is a whole other thing!

Plants, as well as animals, typically evolve certain characteristics as survival mechanisms. That certainly seems to be the case for the Titan, which has to depend on the kindness of strangers for its survival.

Titan Arums belong to an old respectable family, the aroid family or Araceae. We encourage some of its better-known relatives to grow in our gardens: the Calla Lily, Peace Lily, Philodendron, and Jack-in-the-Pulpit. 

The Titan’s “flower,” however is very different. It is actually many small flowers in one structure, termed an inflorescence and it is the largest unbranched inflorescence in the world.

The plant has separate male and female flowers. The female flowers open the first day of bloom and the males open on the second day, preventing self-pollination. Titans are uncommon in cultivation and blooms are rarer still.    

Lineage

Our Titan Arum seeds were obtained from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Its parent is “Big Bucky,” which bloomed in June 2001. “Big Bucky” had been hand-pollinated with pollen preserved from a May 2001-bloom, named “Mr. Magnificent,” at the Marie Selby Botanical Garden. 

For proud Buckeyes, it should be noted that Ohio State and Wisconsin are the only two "Big Ten" Universities to have the distinction of growing and blooming Titans. Also, Ohio State is one of only 19 academic institutions in the United States to ever grow and bloom a Titan.

History

In 1878, the Italian natural scientist Odoardo Beccari discovered the Titan Arum during his exploration of Sumatra. Beccari collected seeds and sent them to the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, where he had once studied. Beccari was a contemporary of Charles Darwin; it is possible that they may have crossed paths during his time in England. The first bloom of this species in cultivation occurred at Kew in 1889.

The first Titan to bloom in the United States was at the New York Botanical Garden in 1937.       

So, why DO we get excited at the blooming of a Titan?

All of the above is reason enough. But just maybe, there’s a bit more. Is it because we can feel a kindred spirit with a plant that persists against all odds—and oddities— in a not always friendly universe?

And remember, there are still two in the Biological Sciences Greenhouse who have yet to bloom.