A Giant Misshapen Phallus

Okay, maybe I’m pulling your leg to get some attention. Don’t worry, the post is totally safe for work and maybe even wholesome for the children. However, Amorphophallus titanum, translated from the latin, does indeed mean giant, misshapen phallus and the Amorphophallus titanum is why all these people were standing around for hours in anticipation.

A crowd of people inside a conservatory.

What these people are looking at is an  example of the world’s largest unbranched inflorescence, the Amorphophallus titanum, which is sometimes called the titan arum. It is a member of the Arum Family, or Araceae, which contains many familiar plants like calla lilies and jack-in-the-pulpit.

Many plants from the Arum family on display outside the conservatory at the botanic garden in Washington, D.C.

The Araceae have a unique flowering structure.

An illustration showing the arrangement of the male and female flowers on the spadix inside the spathe.

The spadix is a large, fleshy protuberance which emits a sent to attract the pollinators. Towards the bottom of the spadix are the actual flowers themselves, which are unisex and without petals. In the Amorphophallus titanum, as in most members of this family, the male flowers are located above the female flowers. The spadix with its flowers are swathed in a colorful modified leaf, shaped like a funnel, called a spathe.

The odor the Amorphophallus titanum emits to attract pollinators smells distinctly like rotting flesh, leading to the name corpse flower, a title is shares with several other foul smelling flowers known as carrion flowers.

Besides being really big and stinky, the flowering is unpredictable. There can be a lapse of anywhere from several years to several decades between blooms. So, when I heard that there was an Amorphophallus titanum at the U.S. Botanic Garden in Washington, D.C. about to bloom, I decided to go take a look.

The titan arum looking ready to bloom.

This is how the Amorphophallus titanum looked when we arrived around two in the afternoon.

The Amorphophallus titanum is native to Sumatra and can grow up to twelve feet tall. This particular plant is about seven years old and this is its first bloom. The Botanic Garden originally predicted it would bloom around July 12. They usually close at five o’clock, but last Thursday and Friday the hours were extended until eight, however the flower did not open.

titan_close_up_spathe

We enjoyed the rest of the gardens and got a bite to eat and returned around half past four. The plant had noticeably changed.

spathe_at_430

People in the crowd started saying that they hoped the Garden would stay open late for the event.

the-_crowd

A young man in the crowd told us how he had seen one in Washington State when he was in graduate school. He told us the a police officer also viewing the flower confirmed that it did indeed smell like a corpse.

spathe_at_430

corpse_flower_at_five

Finally, the flower inflamed crowd was informed that if we didn’t leave the staff would call the police.

This is the last shot I was able to get before they kicked us all out.

This is the last shot I was able to get before they kicked us all out.

When we got home we looked at the live stream. It was half past seven and it appeared as if the plant was blooming. We just missed it by a few hours. Monday, the Botanical Garden will be open until eight.

Here’s a BBC video about this flower.

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5 comments
  1. I didn’t know there are flower enthusiasts!

    • fojap said:

      If there’s a subject you can name, there are probably enthusiasts, but I think flowers are a popular one that’s been around for centuries. Think of the tulip craze that nearly crashed the economy of the Netherlands back in the seventeenth century. Me, I’m actually more of a nature person than a flower person per se.

      In any case, although many of the people with whom we spoke came for the flower, a good number in the picture are regular tourists in Washington D.C. who just happened to be there. The Botanic Garden is located next to the Capitol building and near all the museums. We had lunch at the cafeteria in the Museum of the American Indian next door.

      I’m thinking some of those congressmen and senators need to get out and visit the museums and educate themselves.

      • Now I understand. I think it hasn’t just occurred to me that there could be people waiting on a flower to bloom at the risk of the police being called to help clear them from the grounds.

    • fojap said:

      I don’t think there was any real risk from the police. They announced that the garden was closed and no one budged. After another few minutes someone did say, “If everyone doesn’t start to leave now, we’ll call the capitol police.” At that point I went straight to the exit. I think everyone else did too. It’s not as if anyone was risking a riot to look at a flower. Actually, I was hoping to stay long enough to smell it. Many of the larger botanic gardens in the world have a few and they say that there’s about five or six of them around the world in them that bloom in any given year, so I might get lucky some other time. As it happens we’re only an hour away from Washington, so this was relatively easy. I don’t think I’d fly across the continent for it.

  2. m88 said:

    I read this piece of writing completely concerning the difference of hottest and earlier technologies, it’s
    amazing article.

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