(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on September 29, 2008. Your comments are welcome but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions.)

Bigger than Rafflesia?

Sometimes I wonder about how early plant explorers felt when they slogged into virgin tropical rainforests and found plants that no one could imagine being real. Amorphophallus titanum, or the Titan Arum, is just one such plant. The inflorescence, which on the surface looks like a supergiant flower, can grow as tall as 10 feet. It doesn't beat out Rafflesia, however, because it is not a single flower, but rather an unbranched inflorescence. Within the inverted bell-shaped spathe are found many small male and female flowers.

What this bloom does have in common with Rafflesia, however, is the putrid odor that is emitted to attract pollinators. Plants in the genus Amorphophallus are known for stinky blooms, and the Titan Arum puts out a titanic stink indeed. One would think a ripe dead cow was nearby. This is not the plant to bloom outdoors in a zero lot line community!

Amorphophallus titanum leafThe leaf is a sight to see as well, potentially reaching as high as 20 feet and looking like a strange type of three-branched tree. These plants usually produce just one leaf in a year, so it is a good thing that the one leaf is as large as a small tree. The picture at left shows a mature leaf in the Rare Plant house at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden. My son is there for scale (he was about 4 feet tall then). The "trunk" of this "tree" is actually the petiole of the leaf. Plants may take up to six years to reach blooming size.

A Hotbed of Diversity

A. titanum was first described in 1878 by Odoardo Beccari, an Italian botanist. The plant grows wild in the rainforests of Sumatra, Indonesia. In fact, a lot of Rafflesia species are also found in that area, along with a huge diversity of other unusual and very tropical plants. The Malesian archipelago (Java, Sumatra, Borneo, Malaysia and associated isles) is a veritable hotbed of plant diversity, having more different plants than any other place in the world. Size also matters, as many "largest in the world" plants are found in this area. By that I mean, "largest flower in the world", "largest undivided leaf in the world", and so forth.

Not the easiest . . .

Titan Arum plants used to be so rare that you could see one only in a few major botanical gardens, but now you can find them for sale on the internet as seedlings. I've even seen them being sold at local plant shows. They are on the pricey side, and a challenge to grow as well. While I have grown a few from seeds myself, growing this plant to blooming maturity takes quite a bit of gardening expertise. I would classify this plant with those whose successful culture requires advanced tropical gardening experience.

The genus Amorphophallus has many other species that are not so difficult to culture, and some of their blooms smell equally as foul as the blooms of A. titanum. So if your fancy runs to the bizarre and putrid but you don't think you have the skill to grow the Titan Arum, you can choose from easier ones such as A. rivieri 'Konjac', A. paeonifolius or A. bulbifer. A bonus is that these others cost much less to purchase than A. titanum and you are much less likely to lose them!

If you still want to try growing one of these Titans, check out Culture Sheet to learn how to do it.

Image credit: Public Domain image from Wikimedia Commons and LariAnn Garner