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comparison of skunk cabbage and Titan Arum flowers

Closeups of the flowers of Skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) on the left and Titan arum (Amorphophallus titanum ) on the right.

The Titan arum (Amorphophallus titanum ) at the University of Wisconsin Madison is very close to blooming in a world record fashion! This massive plant can reach over 8 feet in height and grows over several years from an equally massive tuber of over 150 lbs. Titan arum is in the Family Araceae, and like its relatives the calla lilies and "Jack in the pulpit" its flower is a single stalk or spadix studded with tiny flowers that is surrounded by a showy bract called a spathe. The Titan arum is often called the "corpse flower" because it smells very much like decaying flesh ("rotting-fish-with-burnt-sugar") and the the spathe that surrounds the flowers is a dark red "meaty" color. Although not attractive to daytime pollinators like bees, butterflies, or birds, this combination attracts beetles and flesh flies who are fooled into thinking it is a meal. The beetles and flies crawl through the plant transferring pollen and fertilizing the female flowers which will grow into red berries.You can visit this spectacular plant fstaring Monday, June 6, when the greenhouse hours will be 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. On the day the plant blooms, the greenhouse will stay open until midnight. For more information and daly updates visit their website.

Even if you can't make it down to Madison to see this large flower, you can still observe our own unique "carrion arum" every spring in the Great Lakes states. Skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus), although far more diminutive than the Titan arum is also in the Araceae family and uses a similar combination of foetid scent and dark red coloring to attract pollinators. And while the Titan arum is impressive for its rapid growth and immense size, the skunk cabbage has some impressive characteristics of its own.

Skunk cabbage blooms in the very early spring and produces its own heat (thermogenesis) by metabolizing salicylic acid and salicylates. It can maintain temperatures above 15°C when the air temperature drops to –15°C, actually melting the snow around it. The temperature inside the spathe can be 21°C for the blooming period. It doesn't seem to affect the plant directly in terms of growth, in fact the plant has to burn more energy than a small mammal in order to warm itself. Instead the warmth and the carrion smell of the flowers attracts early flies. The shape of the spathe enhances its attracting abilities by drawing cold air in the wide opening toward the bottom of the spathe, which warms and rises out the narrow opening at the top. This draws insects in at the bottom and releases insect-attracting odor out the top.

The Titan arum lives about 40 years flowering several times over that period. Eastern skunk cabbages have been idetified that are several hundred years old and it has been hypothesized that they may be capable of surviing for thousands of years. As a plant grows the roots extend into the wet soil and then coil or contract, anchoring the plant in place and keeping it at the right depth in the wet soil. Root masses on old plants are massive. As long as they have a favorable marshy habitat and are free from predation or disease they are nearly permanent.

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Last updated on April 15, 2014