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Amorphophallus titanum in flowerThe week of July 21, 2003, media broadcasts including national news announced that a Titan Arum, (Amorphophallus titanum) was about to bloom at the United States Botanic Garden, Washington, DC. Throngs of the curious endured the blazing sun and long lines to get a look at this spectacular plant, native to Sumatra. As is usual for this species, the peak opening lasts for only a day or two and by Friday, deterioration was evident, with total collapse inevitable the next day. The U.S. Botanical Garden agreed that it would be in the best interest of science to preserve a specimen of the Amorphophallus before it fell into total ruin.

Why make a specimen? Scientists use dried collections to survey the tremendous diversity among and within species. By carefully comparing the critical characteristics of each specimen, plant taxonomists (scientists who give names to plants) develop a much clearer understanding of the definition of each species and their relationship to other species. The more specimens a researcher has to compare, the more complete is the assessment. Specimens may also serve as vouchers for research that is done in related fields or other applied sciences using plant material.

Specimens of this Amorphophallus titanum will reside at the United States National Herbarium. The U.S. National Herbarium dates back almost to the foundation of the Smithsonian Institution in 1846, and now contains 4.6 million specimens. The herbarium had only two collections of this species, made in Sumatra in 1935-6. There were fruiting specimens and specimens of leaves, but no male and female flowers. This would be the first flowering material for the United States National Herbarium, an important enhancement to our reference collection.

Dr. Dan Nicolson from the Smithsonian was called upon to bring his collecting gear to the Botanic Garden, to perform the collecting task for an audience of educators from the 2003 National Youth Gardening Symposium. Dr. Nicolson, curator in the Botany Section at the National Museum of Natural History, is an aroid specialist. That means he is an expert in the plant family Araceae, to which the genus Amorphophallus belongs. Other members of the Araceae include our native jack-in-the-pulpit and skunk cabbage, well-known ornamentals such as Philodendron, Spathiphyllum, Anthurium and Calla lilies, and the edible taro ('poi' of Hawaii).

Credits: Photos courtesy of Leslie Brothers, James Di Loreto, David Farr, Linda Hollenberg, John Kress, Ida Lopez, Brendan McShea and Beth Strohmayer. Text by Deborah Bell. Web design by Ellen Farr.

[Click any image to start the slide show.]

Amorphophallus titanum in Flower

Amorphophallus titanum in flower. Visitors standing in line. Visitors inside Botanic Garden.

Leaf of Amorphophallus titanum. Horticulturist Elliot Norman. Holly Shimizu, John Kress and Cristian Samper.

Dissecting the Flower

Group of educators watch dissection of flower. Spathe is removed. Spathe displayed.

Spadix is revealed. Closeup of flowers on spadix. Dan Nicolson taking pollen sample.

Dissection of spadix. Spadix cut in half. Cross section of spadix.

Interior of spadix.[Follow this link to view higher magnification images. Caution: The images are about 500 KB and a Flash player is required.]

Preserving the Specimen

Sectioning and spathe. Pieces are preserved in FAA for anatomical studies. Spathe displayed.

Part of the specimen is dried for the Herbarium. A herbarium specimen.

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