A strange phenomenon played itself out in Stellenbosch this week when Stellenbosch University Botanical Gardens (SUBG) showcased its Titan Arum Lily (Amorphophallus titanium), one of the largest flower structures on earth, in full flower.
As one of the world’s largest flower structures, it only blooms every six to 15 years, the flower lasting up to 48 hours. This is the second individual in Southern Africa to flower. Having begun to open at 15:00 on Monday (12 December), the minutes ticked by until the phenomenon was over.
SUBG staff member Bruce Esau said: “We’ve re-potted the Titan Arum Lily for the last two years and have noted a significant growth in corm size. We’ve been waiting 15 years for this moment!”
The size of the Titan Arum Lily isn’t its only fascinating attribute; the flower also produces a foul stench similar to refuse and heats itself up to 36°C – a mechanism aiding in the diffusion of that foul stench. This is to attract flies to pollinate it, mimicking the odour of a rotting corpse.
On years it does not produce a flower, it produces a large leaf to absorb and store-up resources over the years to eventually have enough energy to produce a flower again. As the corm increases in size, the flower structure generally also increases in size, eventually reaching heights of around 3 m in full bloom.
According to Esau, this flower is indigenous to the rainforests of Sumatra, Indonesia and highly endangered with only about 1 000 specimens left in the wild.
“Habitat loss is the main driver for this flower going endangered,” Esau added. “Land that used to be dense tropical forests and the Titan Arum Lily’s majestic home are now vast areas of palm oil plantations. Although we aren’t directly involved in the conservation of the Titan Arum Lily itself, the spectacle of the flower at the gardens is a wonderful educational prompt to the public.
“The Titan Arum Lily is a good example of the urgency of conservation efforts needed to protect and nurture indigenous species. Our own local fynbos suffers from a similar level of pressure from land-use change from surrounding agricultural and residential zones. Although not as large or smelly, the fynbos is home to numerous breathtakingly beautiful flowers that occur only there and are rapidly yet silently being lost.”
Esau further said SUBG staff have made huge efforts to mitigate species loss and continue to educate and promote conservation of local, endemic habitats.
“An example is its new Cape Lowland habitat beds, harbouring fragments from surrounding areas such as Littlefoot, Koringberg, Duthie Nature Reserve and Blaauwberg, all highly pressured by urbanisation and alien invasives,” he related.
“The Titan Arum Lily is a marvel to behold and a stench to remember. So be sure to visit the botanical gardens before the time is up!”