4 November 2019

The giant, pongy plant: Titan arum

Learn more about the smelliest plant on Earth.

Grace Brewer

By Grace Brewer

Staff member looking at Titan arum in the Princess of Wales Conservatory

Plant that packs a punch

Dubbed the ‘corpse flower’, Titan arum (Amorphophallus titanum) stinks of rotting flesh when in bloom. 

Whilst some pollinators are attracted to floral aromas, the pollinators of Titan arum love to feed and breed on flesh and dung. 

Imitating a dead animal is what Titan arum does best. Alongside its foul smell, it has a dark burgundy interior resembling flesh.

Titan arum (Amorphophallus titanum) with massive inner flower spike surrounded by a green to cream petal-like collar
Titan arum (Amorphophallus titanum) with the largest unbranched inflorescence in the world © RBG Kew
Titan arum (Amorphophallus titanum) in bloom with massive inner flower spike surrounded by a deep burgundy petal-like collar
Titan arum (Amorphophallus titanum) in bloom © RBG Kew

World record-breaker

Titan arum has the largest unbranched inflorescence in the world that can stand up to 3 metres above ground.

An inflorescence is a flower structure that consists of a cluster of smaller individual flowers.

This massive inflorescence consists of an inner flower spike, known as a spadix.

The spadix is surrounded by a petal-like collar called a spathe which is green to cream on the outside and deep burgundy on the inside.

The tip of the spadix produces heat in a process called thermogenesis. This helps the smell of rotting flesh travel and can attract pollinators from up to half a mile away.

Titan arum (Amorphophallus titanum) bright red and orange spherical fruit.
Titan arum (Amorphophallus titanum) fruit © RBG Kew

The big night

Titan arum is a major tourist attraction when in bloom.

Both male and female flowers grow in the same inflorescence, but to prevent self-pollination, the female flowers open before the male flowers. 

Pollinating insects that are drawn to the odour, creep inside the spathe and unknowingly deposit pollen on the receptive female flowers. 

The female flowers then close after 12 to 24 hours and the male flowers open, showering the insects with pollen.

As the inflorescence begins to collapse, the insects head out and carry the pollen to a nearby female flower.

The pollinated flowers of Titan arum then develop bright red and orange spherical fruit which are typically dispersed by Rhinoceros Hornbills.

Did you know?

  • In 1889, Titan arum flowered for the first time ever outside its native Sumatra, Indonesia, right here at Kew.
  • Bonn University Botanic Garden in Germany was instrumental in finding the correct conditions needed to make Titan arums reliably flower.
  • David Attenborough first coined the name ‘Titan arum’ in a BBC series. The literal translation of the Latin name was deemed too rude for TV audiences.

You wouldn’t be-leaf-it

On years when Titan arum does not flower, it produces a single, tree-like leaf – the largest leaf in the world.

The leaf stalk is speckled with white patches and has three branches each with numerous large leaflets. 

The food the leaf produces from photosynthesis is stored in a massive underground tuber.

After about eight months, the leaf dies and the plant goes dormant for three to six months whilst the tuber continues to grow larger.

Several leaf and dormant cycles will typically take place before the plant flowers again.

A Titan arum plant will usually have accumulated enough energy to produce the giant inflorescence once the tuber is at least five years old and has reached 20kg or over.

Titan arum (Amorphophallus titanum) tree-like leaf with a speckled leaf stalk, three branches and large leaflets.
Titan arum (Amorphophallus titanum) leaf © RBG Kew

Under threat

Titan arum is endemic to the island of Sumatra in Indonesia where it grows in rainforests on limestone hills.

The destruction of the rainforests of Sumatra is drastically affecting the number of Titan arum in the wild.

Titan arum is listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

This makes the cultivation work conducted at botanic gardens worldwide incredibly important for the conservation of the species.

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