Picture from the official website of Cornell's Titan Arum

Prof Karl Niklas talks about the Titan Arum

October 14, 2016

A ‘Stinky’ Wonder: Cornell’s Titan Arum ‘Wee Stinky’ to Blossom Tonight

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Although the scent of damp, dense, greenery is overwhelming, it is the rotten fish smell that overpowers your nostrils. As you step closer, the monstrous spadix and purple flower come into view matching the pungent aroma that has overtaken the forest. What living species could possibly have such dramatic characteristics?

Native to the rainforests of Sumatra, Indonesia, Amorphophallus titanum, commonly called the titan arum, has the largest unbranched flowering structure of any plant. From a seedling, it takes about eight to 10 years for the plant to reach the size at which it blooms. This plant is known for its theatrical and malodorous blooming. When fully blossoming, what appears as a giant flower at the base, green on the outside and purple on the inside is actually called a spathe and is a modified leaf. Shooting out of the spathe is a column structure called a spadix.

Currently, there are two flowering sized titan arums in the Liberty Hyde Bailey Conservatory. Named Wee Stinky and Carolus, these two plants represent the diverse interests in Cornell’s Department of Plant Biology.

Among the hustle and bustle of students, the Liberty Hyde Bailey Conservatory is an oasis on campus housing a vast diversity of plants. The conservatory, formerly part of the Liberty Hyde Bailey Hortorium, is now part of the Department of Plant Biology. The conservatory is also shared by other sections of the School of Integrated Plant Science.

“What we aim to do here is have as much diversity as possible,” Prof. William Crepet, plant biology, said, who is the chair of the department. “It is a teaching and researching resource.”

A variety of wild species can be found here to be observed, studied, and researched.

“We are excited about potential here. It is almost like a zoo,” Crepet said. “In the world we are facing extinctions, and we want to protect that diversity.”

Wee Stinky is predited to flower sometime this week. It will be the third time the plant flowers in its lifetime. In spring of 2012, Wee Stinky, named by popular vote, bloomed for the first time and attracted over 10,000 visitors to the conservatory and over 500,000 live streaming the event. Wee Stinky flowered again in 2014. According to Paul Cooper, caretaker, there is no exact way to predict when the flowering will occur, but looking at growth and previous blooming events helps to approximate a potential window.

“It flowers when it wants to,” said Craig Cramer, a communications specialist for the School of Plant Sciences.

After the first bloom, a leaf can grow if the titan arum plant is well cared for. The leaf can grow to be above five feet tall. The leaf can go down, and the plant can flower again. This cycle can occur for many decades, and the titan arum can flower every two or three years. Carolus, the second titan arum, is currently in a dormant state and is in its leaf stage. The leaf of Carolus is above seven feet, currently.

Compared to when it last flowered, Wee Stinky is bigger than ever. In November of 2014, the plant reached a spadix height of 76 inches just before blossoming. Wee Stinky topped that on Oct. 8, and is now at a height of 87 inches. The growth of the spadix slows as the flowering nears.

“This one [the Titam Arum] everyone is attracted to because it’s so unusual and bizarre, and complicated,” Cramer said. “It’s complex. It’s dramatic.”

The blossoming event lasts for about two days. On day one, the female flowers open for pollination and on day two, the male flowers open to provide pollen for other titan arums. The plant cannot self-pollinate. The last time Wee Stinky flowered it was pollinated by graduate students with frozen pollen from another plant at SUNY Binghamton. If pollination is successful, then orange-red fruits develop. After two days, the spathe begins to wilt and the spadix collapses. Once the remnants of the flowering structure are gone, a tree-sized leaf structure will grow.

During the flowering, the spadix tip of the plant gets very hot. When blossoming occurs and the flowers are ready for pollination, the spadix emits a powerful odor. The heat in the spadix is produced to diffuse the odor and advertise the plant to pollinators such as carrion flies and beetles. This odor is similar to that of rotten meat and is extremely noxious all due to its chemical structures.

“This is going to smell like hell, and that’s chemistry!” Crepet said, in anticipation of the blossoming.

Cooper explained that during the first night the odor of the titan arum changes noticeably. These changes have been examined closely by the chair of the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior, Prof. Robert Raguso. Raguso has collected the scent and looked at all the sulfur containing gases it produces. There are four or five gases that peak at different times, so the odor changes. In a few hours, the smell gets more like rotten fish.

The plants are considered not only from a biological perspective, but also through a chemistry lens. Crepet emphasized that studying plant chemicals is important in the drug industry and that focus has led to a plants and human health concentration in his department.

“A lot of chemicals produced by plants have been important in developing critical pharmaceuticals—including anti-carcinogens , analgesics, and anti-malarial drugs,” Crepet said. “This ‘natural pharmacy’ is part of the reason we developed the Plants and Human Health concentration in the plant sciences major which focuses on plant chemistry and its role in human health and serves as an alternative pathway for undergraduates interested in medical or other health related careers.”

This third blossoming is quite a feat for the titan arum as each cycle between leaf and flower is a huge metabolic cost to the plant. The plant is certainly a fascination for scientists and will continue to be a marvel at Cornell and in the plant science world.

The magnificent plant is at display at the conservatory. This building is open to the public most weekdays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. but hours are extended from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. during the flowering event. Additionally, the live stream of the titan arum can be viewed here.