Rare plant is a blooming miracle

COLUMBUS — Joan Leonard, Ohio State University Biological Sciences greenhouse coordinator, is about to have a very large baby. It already weighs more than 47 pounds.

The signs seem clear, although she has been at this point before — and no delivery. But Leonard cannot stifle her excitement at the idea of becoming the proud parent of the world’s largest, rarest and on-the-brink of extinction, blooming plant: the titan arum. And daily now, the plant is giving her “good-to-go” signals.

Leonard can be doubly proud. Her titan arum is the first grown from seed to bloom in Ohio. She knows — she planted it herself and has nurtured it for nine years in the greenhouse atop the 12th Avenue parking garage.

Species

Titan arums are large, rare and in the wild grow only in the tropical rainforests of Sumatra, where 70 percent of that habitat has already been destroyed. On the threatened species list, many plant conservationists have taken up its cause with the hope of saving it from extinction. Leonard is on a mission to do her part.

“This is the flagship species for a serious botanical garden or conservatory. In the 75 years since the first titan bloomed at the New York Botanical Garden in 1937, fewer than 100 titans have bloomed in cultivation. In fact, only 33 institutions in the United States have been able to coax a bloom. Little wonder considering how difficult gestation proves for them — never mind how difficult it is for them to just ‘get pregnant.’”

This gigantic plant, Amorphophallus titanum, or titan arum, is unique and strangely wonderful. It is one of nature’s true wonders, boasting the plant kingdom’s largest known un-branched inflorescence, or flower structure.

Blooming

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.

In cultivation, the average recorded height of an inflorescence is 5 feet; the largest, 9 feet, 2 inches. In their natural habitat, they can soar to 12 feet. Periods of dormancy may last anywhere from three to nine months.

When not shooting up a bloom, it will send up a single leaf, which can reach 15 feet in height and have the girth of a man’s thigh. The rarity of its flowerings, characteristic foul stench (it is also known as the corpse plant), and staggering size, make its blooming an event that always captures the public’s imagination.

When the University of Wisconsin’s titan, Big Bucky, bloomed for the second time in 2005, 30,000 visitors thronged to the greenhouse to see it. It is pollinated by sweat bees, carrion beetles and flies attracted by the rancid odor, which is said to be detectable from half a mile away.

All of this, for, at most, a three-day blooming period, less if you want to pollinate it. Willing to abandon the extra day or so of blooming in the name of responsible conservation, Leonard intends to pollinate her plant, which she has named Woody for the great Wayne Woodrow Hayes, himself a rare and wonderful breed.

Webcast

A live webcam is available at http://sdhcp-254-233-1.biosci.ohio-state.edu./view/index.shtml.

Titan arums belong to the aroid family or Araceae. We may see some of its better-known relatives in our gardens: the Calla Lily, Peace Lily, Philodendron, and Jack-in-the-Pulpit. Its flower is actually many small flowers in one structure, termed an inflorescence.

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.

Origin

Titans are uncommon in cultivation and blooms are rarer still. It is native to the rainforests of Sumatra in Indonesia. Already uncommon in the wild, the titan arum is under additional population pressure as their native habitats are rapidly being destroyed, primarily due to illegal logging and land conversion for agriculture use to feed a growing population. Titans are listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

OSU’s titan arum was planted from seed in November 2001 in Ohio State’s Biological Sciences Greenhouse. The seed, obtained from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, was from Big Bucky, which first bloomed in June 2001. It had been hand-pollinated with pollen preserved from a May 2001-bloom, named Mr. Magnificent, at the Marie Selby Botanical Garden.

Woody is the first titan arum grown from seed to bloom in Ohio. Scientists plan to hand-pollinate Woody with pollen collected from a sibling titan which recently bloomed at the University of Pittsburgh.

Discovery

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. The first bloom of this species in cultivation occurred at Kew in 1889.

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