Bloedel’s Titan arum: ‘Uncle Fester’

What a week!

On July 10, 2018, the Bloedel Conservatory became home to British Columbia’s first ever Titan arum (Amorphophallus titanum), more commonly called the Corpse flower. This name is inspired by the nasty smell of rotting meat given off by the flower to attract pollinating flies and beetles. By public vote, our Titan was nicknamed ‘Uncle Fester’.

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Bloedel’s Titan arum ‘Uncle Fester’ fully open on July 16, 2018. Photo by V.Earle

And pollinators weren’t the only thing Uncle Fester was attracting! Over 17,000 people made it into the Conservatory over the week to see, smell and take a selfie with the plant – sometimes waiting over 4 hours to spend a couple of minutes with him!

The excitement really began Sunday evening, July 15 around 7pm, when Uncle Fester’s spathe (the frilly modified leaf), began to unfurl. He hit his stride and full smell by the next morning, beckoning every TV and radio crew in the Lower Mainland to come to get a whiff. The tall yellow spadix heats up internally to release a number of smelly compounds including dimethyl trisulfide (like limburger cheese dunked in sulphur), trimethylamine (rotting fish), isovaleric acid (sweaty socks) and phenol (like Chloraseptic). Uncle Fester reached a top temperature of 84 degrees Fahrenheit and smelled more like dead rats and rotten cabbage which seemed to come in waves.

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‘Uncle Fester’ getting his twice daily temperature check. Photo by V.Earle

Titan arums are rare and don’t flower often, regardless if they are in the wild or at a botanic garden. They are native to the island of Sumatra in Indonesia and often take between three to ten years to bloom. Technically they are the largest unbranched inflorescence in the world and listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List due to habitat loss from palm oil plantations. An estimated 72% of Sumatra’s original rainforest has been lost and the scale of deforestation is continuing at an alarming rate, affecting not only Titan arums, but also Rhinoceros Hornbills – a bird that eats the plant’s fruits and distributes its seeds. A number of gardens around the world are now growing these amazing plants to help with conservation efforts.

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‘Uncle Fester’ takes a bow after a job well done! Photo by V.Earle

For a young plant, our Titan arum really put on a show! It is only six years old, its corm (the underground tuber) weighs only 27 lbs, and it reached almost 6 feet in height. Typically corpse flowers don’t send up their first bloom until they reach between seven and ten years of age, with corms that can weigh nearly 200 lbs.

When the bloom is finished, the spathe twists around the toppled spadix and contracts so tightly it forms a huge water-tight bag. This creates a safe protected nursery for the small inner female flowers to become fruit/seeds. Very important in a wet, humid rainforest with lots of hungry animals!

Uncle Fester will stay at the Conservatory through Sunday and then will be moved back to the nursery for a good rest with lots of pampering. He will most likely send up a tall, 15-foot umbrella-like leaf every year to collect and store energy for his next bloom cycle. These plants are historically unpredictable, so this could be in 2-3 years, or it could take 10 years before we see Uncle Fester again! The Bloedel Conservatory is open regular hours, 10am – 8pm. Stop in for a last peek and say ‘farewell’.

 

 

 

 

©V.Earle Bloedel Titan arum cycle

Blooming phases of Bloedel’s Titan arum ‘Uncle Fester’, starting on Saturday, July 14, 2018 (upper left); Spathe begins to unfurl at 7pm, Sunday, July 15; Spathe fully open Monday, July 16 (lower left) and begins to close later that afternoon; Tall spadix begins to decay and tilt July 18 until it topples over at 11am, Thursday July 19. Photo sequence by V.Earle