The Titan Arum: Blooming Psychedelic

Only rarely has a crack appeared in the steady, scholarly timbre of Sir David Attenborough’s on-screen voice during his fifty-year career with the BBC. One of those occasions was while filming The Private Life of Plants in Sumatra, in 1993.

Archive footage shows Attenborough standing alongside a tall flower with a tremendous spike. “The function of this great spike in the middle is to produce a smell – [cough] – and if you smell it, it smells very strongly of bad fish,” a ruffled Attenborough manages to say. The plant that Attenborough and his team located deep in the Indonesian rainforest was the titan arum, Amorphophallus titanium, or perhaps more evocatively, the corpse flower. Last month a relative of the titan arum seen in the BBC footage bloomed – and bloomed radically – at Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens, bringing thousands through the garden’s greenhouse doors to … well, take in the show.

The show started at four in the afternoon on 13 March. Behind the humid walls of the tropical glasshouse the titan arum began to unfurl its green, inverted skirt. “You could hear it peeling back and almost see it move,” says the Botanic Gardens’ Director, Professor Tim Entwisle. You could smell it, too. From the plant’s large, central spike – or spadix – came the wafting fragrance of sweet, off fish. The crowds were rapt. For the next three days lines of people curled towards the glasshouse for a chance to see the titan arum, noses at the ready. But what they were waiting for was no hit of Chanel No. 5.

I reckon the titan arum smells like a dead possum in the roof,” explains Professor Entwisle. “Others say it’s more like an old tuna sandwich left in the car.” It’s just the kind of situation roll-on deodorant and gas masks were made for.

Attenborough’s original trek into equatorial Indonesia to record the flowering of the titan arum was successful in many respects. Scientists on the expedition were able to establish for the first time that sweat bees pollinate the flower, attracted by its curious perfume. Breakthrough footage of the flower appeared on television screens around the world. Seeds were also collected on the journey and deposited afterwards with the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Some of those seeds were shared with Sydney’s Botanic Gardens and in 2006, two small tubers grown in Sydney were sent to Melbourne. “They are both about 34 kilograms now and we have two extra plants propagated from leaf cuttings,” says Professor Entwisle. “This particular plant flowered two years ago, after about seven years of growth. That happened in January 2013, just after our first titan arum flower bloomed (on a different plant) on Boxing Day 2012. Both previous flowers were smaller, less than 2 metres tall. This one reached 2.63 metres – making it the tallest in Australia and bigger than any grown at Kew Gardens in London.”

Time in the titan arum world is both rapid-fire and slow. It’s slow in the sense that the flower appears, on average, once every three years. In between there are cycles of dormancy and leaf growth. In the glasshouse setting, the tuber is kept in a bed of sphagnum moss during its dormant phase, which lasts around four months. When a bud appears it’s planted and a waiting game begins. The bud more often than not forms a single leaf that lasts about 18 months and grows to the same height of the flower. But in cycles, that bud will form a flower. The phase of flower growth is quick in plant terms: 10-20 centimetres a day at peak speed. “Our tuber started to germinate on 5 February but we didn’t know it was a flower until 24 February – at that stage it may have been a leaf. It then started to grow rapidly,” Professor Entwisle says. “It was looking about ready to flower on 8 March but it wasn’t until Friday, 13 March in the afternoon when the spathe (the skirt) started to unfurl. It opened fully overnight and by Sunday (15 March) morning it was starting to close.” The bloom was fully closed by Monday, and preceded to wilt and break down over the next week.

The titan arum is a plant that blooms psychedelic. It trumpets out a rich odour loudly to nearby pollinators, and then vanishes with a spectacular wilting of its collective parts. So how does such a giant stinker make friends with half of Melbourne? The secret might be in appealing to all five of the senses, as well as our hunger for the exotic.

The titan arum is rare in the wild. It flowers briefly and when it does forms a towering structure, which looks like a giant peeled banana emerging from the centre of a stiff, purple and green tutu. Arguably, it has the largest flower in the world (or alternatively, the largest unbranched inflorescence). The colours and textures of the plant are hypnotic and surprising. And to restate the obvious, it smells.

I saw and smelt my first titan arum in Sydney’s Royal Botanic Gardens, when I was director there,” recalls Professor Entwisle. “I was very excited by the first one. I just stared and marveled. It’s very much a rock star of the plant world.”

So much so that Melbourne’s titan arum has its own Twitter account and 500-odd followers. While in flower it was tweeting madly, sometimes up to forty-six times a day. There were daily retweets of photos with fans, personalized hash tags and record-beating moments shared live. For a plant so rare, with a flower so fleeting, an online presence offers a way to share milestones minute by minute. “The titan arum started its account last year, with a bit of help from us,” Professor Entwisle explains wryly. “It began tweeting in the early days of this bloom and it is such a great way to start conversations and talk about what a titan arum is.” But a philosophical struggle also arises: how can you smell the flower via Twitter? Only that can be experienced in the wilds of Sumatra, or up close inside a glasshouse.