10 things we learnt about South Australia’s first corpse flower

Here’s what we discovered when the Titan arum flowered for the first time in Mount Lofty Botanic Garden.

The Titan arum (Amorphophallus titanum) is commonly known as the corpse flower and has one of the world’s largest and smelliest flowers.

In 2006 the Botanic Gardens of South Australia received three Titan arum seeds through a donation and has been working to get the unique plant to flower ever since. In a first for the state, the Titan arum flowered in the Mount Lofty Botanic Garden nursery on 29 December 2015.

Horticultural Curator of Plant Propagation, Matt Coulter shares what we learnt from South Australia’s first corpse flower.

1.       Flower

It’s extremely hard to tell if a Titan arum is going to flower as the inflorescence (a group of flowers) and leaf bud have very similar characteristics. It was just two weeks before full flowering that we knew we had South Australia’s first corpse flower on the way. This exciting event allowed us to make important observations about what to look for next time

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Caption: The corpse flower in the Mount Lofty Botanic Garden nursery.

Although the Titan arum looks like one huge flower, it is actually an inflorescence or cluster of flowers. These smaller flowers are located inside the base of the spathe (burgundy upturned skirt).

2.       Growth

At its fastest, the Titan arum grows between 15 and 18 centimetres a day for a period of around a week. When it stops growing the spathe starts to open. The plant has very particular growth patterns and our Titan arum followed these exactly as the literature described.

3.       Speed

The spathe stays firmly shut until the spadix (giant yellow spike) stops growing. Once the spathe starts to open it does so rapidly over a four hour period. It’s incredible how quickly this happens, you can see it opening in front of your eyes.

For us, it was exactly eight weeks between the first sign of the bud becoming active and full flowering of the inflorescence.

4.       Size

Our first corpse flower was 1.96 metres tall. If you classify the whole structure as a flower, the Titan arum has the largest flower of any plant in the world.

5.       Smell

The plant starts to smell when liquid oozes from its spathe. This is also a sign that the spathe is about to open. The foul odour is produced overnight, particularly on the first night, and ceases during the day. When we opened the glasshouse the first morning after flowering the smell was extremely intense.

The Titan arum manufactures its aroma, often likened to the smell of rotting flesh, to attract insects carrying pollen. These insects are active at night which is why it stops producing its smell during the day. The smell is present but less intense on the second night, when the plant is no longer active and starts releasing pollen rather than trying to attract insect pollinators.

6.       Corm

The roots of the corm (underground plant stem) are also very interesting. They have an annual cycle, like the plant, and are so strong that they’ve distorted or split pots on a number of occasions. It’s also interesting to note that 90% of the roots protrude from the top of the corm where the plant bud grows.

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Caption: An Amorphophallus titanum corm.

7.        Popularity

More than 5,000 people flocked to Mount Lofty Botanic Garden on the day that the corpse flower was displayed, with visitors from as far afield as Queensland, New Zealand and Taiwan. While the Titan arum is a flagship species for botanic gardens worldwide, we were amazed by the public and media interest it received from South Australia, Australia and around the globe.

8.        Name

As this was South Australia’s first corpse flower we wanted to ensure the community had an opportunity to be involved. We ran a naming competition on Facebook asking people for their suggestions. The winner, Amy Martin from Uraidla named the plant Indah which means beautiful in Indonesian. We were so pleased to see Amy at Mount Lofty Botanic Garden visiting the amazing plant she named.

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Caption: Corpse flower naming competition winner Amy with Matt Coulter and Indah.

9.       Propagation

In the Mount Lofty Botanic Garden nursery we have been able to propagate Titan arum plants from leaf cuttings of our original specimens. These plants are now nearing three years of age. To get one of these plants to flower is a challenge we’re working towards. Our aim is to have at least one plant flower annually so we can display it to the public. This is something very few botanic gardens worldwide have been able to achieve.

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Caption: The Titan arum plants in the forefront of this image have been propagated from leaf cuttings.

10.       Future

Our other challenge is to get this plant to flower at Adelaide Botanic Garden where we can share it with an even larger audience. We observed that the plant looks its best on the first afternoon after flowering and starts deteriorating the following afternoon. Having a flower on display in Adelaide Botanic Garden would allow us to showcase it to the public on that first afternoon and into the night when its smell is strongest.

The Botanic Gardens of South Australia comprises three beautiful public gardens - Adelaide Botanic Garden in the city, Mount Lofty Botanic Garden in the Adelaide Hills and Wittunga Botanic Garden in suburban Blackwood. These gardens provide visitors with a range of cultural, recreational, educational and scientific facilities.

Did you see the corpse flower in Mount Lofty Botanic Garden? Share your photos in the comments below.

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