Tons of Titans and Devil's Tongues ~ Narratives

Amorphophallus titanum, gigas and other species
May 2003

Narratives by Craig M. Allen, Conservatory Manager 2003 & Amorphophallus horticulturist
TitanWatch 5/12 - 5/13/03 #2 ~ I climbed the ladder to do my Carrion beetle act

It's happening at last. At 1:30 there was a funny little bulge on the left side of the spathe, by 2:30 there was no doubt, Mr. Stinky is opening as fast as he can. It is now 3:45 PM and he has opened app. 20%. Majestic was the adjective used by Caroline Lewis from Fairchild's Center for Teaching & Learning.

At 5:30 it is app. 30% open. I'm waiting to catch the first hint of odor, but not yet. The first real odor I could sense was about 8-8:30 PM.

It is now 9:30 and it is very slowly building up odor. The waves are still fairly far apart. It isn't horrible, but it does make people move away from the plant when it is dispersing. Ughhhhhhhh! You don't hear it, it isn't a "fart," it just slowly envelops you in an invisible cloud of putrid gas.

I am so very tired that I'm having a difficult time enjoying the theatrical effects. I just drank a Red Bull energy drink. I know it will give me 2 hours of energy and enthusiasm. So out I go into the Temple for Titans display area. Reuters news service photographer was here earlier, now the reporter is here. Great, she brought her child. Nothing gets me talking more than explaining the Stinky's to kids. They love him in all his putrid glory. The Voice of America (VOA) reporter has been here all afternoon and chose to stay for awhile to get the full odiferous effect. He is taping a lots and lots of conversations. A number of people stayed until 10:30 PM. I had a couple of visitors, Mr. and Mrs. Gumpf, drove four hours to experience the blooming. They video taped a lot of what was going on. He even had an interview with the VOA reporter. The Gumpfs and about eight others stayed until I left at 2 AM. At midnight the Miami Herald reporter, Nicholas Spangler, and photojournalist, David Adame, showed up to record the pollination and nausea of Mr. Stinky's groupies. At 12:15 in the morning when Mr. Stinky was at full Stinkorama, I climbed the ladder to do my Carrion beetle act and applies the valuable pollen to the receptive female flowers. I had enough pollen to dust three times. Now I will hope. We popped the bottle of champagne and toasted to a fun but long night's vigil. Those that stayed together can commiserate when the world stinks. And… it did stink, but the odor was probably gone by 5 AM, not that I was here. The next morning there were hints of odor that continued, but decreasing, all day long. I expect by mid-day tomorrow that the spathe, that beautiful royal robe of burgundy (that imitates rotting meat) will begin to take on a wilted, droopy appearance. Also with in a few days the spadix will fall. …and down will come baby stinker and all.

TitanWatch 5/11/03 #2 ~ Yea! Obsessive is a good word… relatively

See Craig panic, see Craig panic a lot, see Craig eat crow, maybe… Well, what can I say, I panicked when I saw the spathe beginning to move away from the spadix, but I just might have jumped the gun. 

Figuring that I was going to be here all night, I went out for supper. I thought I better go while I was still feeling good enough to eat. When I got back to Fairchild, I ran back to the Conservatory to check out Mr. Stinky. Well… that little, I mean big, tease had closed back up again. Was I so tired I was delirious? I'm tired, but come on. I'm not hallucinating. I quickly downloaded the pictures I had taken before I went out to eat. There it was in digital format, a two-inch deep burgundy gap in the spathe. At least it WAS there. Hopefully no one will think I'm crazy. I guess it's a little late for that. Even the Washington Post printed "They tracked its growth obsessively." I guess obsessive is better than crazy. Yea! Obsessive is a good word… relatively.

Anyway, what I'm saying is that at least for now it appears that it isn't opening right at this moment. I'm going to stay here at Fairchild until about midnight just to be sure. Then if I run home to get a few hours sleep, I can still pollinate Mr. Stinky in the morning even if it has begun to open. Or … maybe I should bring my inflatable mattress back up here and spend the night. Obsessive, my eye!

If you don't get another e-mail tonight, all is well. I will try to send out one as soon as I get here (or wake up) in the morning. I don't want anyone to panic. Did I use the word PANIC? Oooooooh noooo…

TitanWatch 5/10/03 ~ The mysteries of the Titan

OK, I’m beginning to panic again. After being so wrong about ‘Audrey III,’ I don't trust my original timing estimates. We had already moved up our estimate to May 12-13. Perhaps I should say May 11-15. Or maybe I should change it to 15 minutes from now until May 18. Then I couldn't possible be wrong… could I? ‘Mr. Stinky’ has begun to slow down his upward growth though he is still growing some, and getting fatter by the minute. The ruffles at the top of the spathe are definitely loosening up now. The deep burgundy color developing on the inside is very advanced. ‘Mr. Stinky’ has always been very thick in the middle, but I might be seeing the beginning of tension building up in the folded ribs of the spathe. Could this be the beginning of the final countdown? Who knows?

Will I ever be able to peg the opening of an Amorphophallus titanum bloom accurately? If the blooms lasted longer I wouldn't worry so. Since we are going to attempt pollination on ‘Mr. Stinky’ his bloom will be no longer lasting than ‘Audrey III’, perhaps less. 14 hours was about all the time ‘Audrey III’ was in perfect condition. After the pollen is applied with my trusty "blush brush," the spathe will begin to wrap tightly around the spadix. In a natural setting that action would trap the visiting pollinators until the next day when the inflorescence would release its own pollen. Covered with pollen, the carrion beetles or other pollinators would be allowed to escape. With luck, for a Titan, they would head off to another Titan Lily thinking "There is nothing to eat in this beetle trap, but I smell massive roadkill just over the hill. Yum Yum!"

For your own realistic experience you might want to stuff a piece of raw fish in a zip lock and store it in the heat to ripen. Opening the bag as you watch ‘Mr. Stinky’ opening on the web would help you to experience the mysteries of the Titan. It would be your home made scratch and sniff accessory.

TitanWatch 5/9/03  ~ Farewell to Audrey III...

Farewell to Audrey III... For those keeping up with the web cam, the collapse of the Amorphophallus titanum Audrey III, is no surprise. Not more than 5 minutes after I sent yesterdays update and had turned off my computer, I went out for my last evening's observation of the Titans. There she sat looking a bit long in the tooth. Her beautiful cone like spadix had unceremoniously flopped right in her face. In the next day or two she will be moved to a private spot to regain her composure and grow this years leaf. Audrey’s 15 minutes of fame has past for now. As a mature Titan, I’m sure she will be back to be admired in a few years.

Meanwhile the hottest ticket in town is Audrey’s brother, the famous Mr. Stinky. This afternoon the spathe has loosened yet a little more, but not enough to signal red alert. The dark red color on the inner spathe is getting quite strong now. The depressions forming near the top on either side of the spadix are very deep now. It appears that the inner tissue of each depression or dimple may actually be in physical contact. The spadix is taking on a very mature look. Dimples, Mr. Stinky has dimples. I guess the next step is a smile, and then… well anyway don't stand too close.

Looking at Mr. Stinky's magnificent developing bloom spike, I am struck by certain characters that I remember from the last two times he bloomed. One that had me worried the first time, are tiny dark spots just down from the edge of the spathe’s ruffle. Mr. Stinky has had that each time, but there was no sign of it on Audrey III. Another familiar feature is the way the ribs near the edge of the ruffled spathe twist and arch as they grow and expand. It looks like there isn’t enough room for the spathe to pack in all ruffles that Mr. Stinky is developing. Audrey’s spathe was always very regular and even in its expansion. Was she always conscious of her appearance?

A little interesting side note is the appearance of developing berries on one of the first Amorphophallus gigas to bloom. We didn’t pollinate it, but did Mother Nature take care of that for us. If seeds do develop, who would the other parent be? The other two A. gigas had not yet fully developed. Just maybe there was a wild "Stinky" party when Fairchild staff wasn’t there to keep order.

TitanWatch 5/8/03 ~ What’s goin’ on?

As we gather here waiting for the moment… again… for a Titan Lily to strut it’s stuff, or strut it’s stench, or do the Mambo… I do digress. Anyway, the growing inflorescence is like none I have ever grown. It is sooooooo plump. It has me puzzled in a way. The spathe is still fairly tightly ruffled around the spadix, though a little bit looser than yesterday. The red color developing on the inside of the spathe is a bit more visible, but not a lot. It seems to be slowing down its growth a little, but only a little. But over all it is really FAT! Maybe it thinks I’m its Papa and wants to look like me. For the huge girth of the spadix as it emerges from the spathe I would expect a lot more height from the huge hollow odor factory. Why is the spadix so much darker than any others? What’s goin’ on? What’s goin’ on? (Now I’m beginning to sound like an old Marvin Gaye record from the early 70’s)

The history of the spadix color on Mr. Stinky: 1998 it was fairly light with only a little of the darkening near the tip, 2001 it had more color and it was further down on the spadix, 2003 it looks positively sun tanned. I was wondering if the intense sun we are having this spring causes it, but it appears to have had no affect on Audrey III. Is it an age thing? What’s goin’ on? My notes I recorded during past TitanWatch years made note of furrows and depressions developing in the spadix. In 1998 there were 14 days between they note and the bloom opening. On Audrey III there was a 5-day period between the notes being made and the surprise opening on Monday afternoon. What in the dickens is going on? Does Mr. Stinky have more surprises in store for us?

TitanWatch 5/7/03 ~ There’s gold in them thar hills…

This morning the Amorphophallus titanum going under the alias 'Audrey III,' is looking a little less than spectacular. The spathe has completely closed around the spadix. The odor she was so famous for is no more than a faded memory, though there are occasional air currents with the smell of wilted vegetables combined aroma of dirty dog. The idea of aroma therapy has taken on a whole new meaning for me.

About noon I went out to check on the production of pollen on Audrey’s spadix. There’s gold in them thar hills… or folds. If you think I was rude to Audrey yesterday, you should have witnessed the abuse she was subjected to this afternoon. Sure enough there was pollen. Chris Mayhew, a conservatory volunteer, and I used my business cards to scrape fresh pollen from the male flowers. Looking down into the funnel we could see a lot more pollen already at the bottom. That stuff is worth more than gold to me so I figured a way to get most of it out. I attached a ¼ tsp. measuring spoon to the end of a piece of bamboo, and went fishing. It was just the right size. With my nifty tool I was able to double the amount of harvested pollen. All together I think we obtained about a tablespoon. More than anything it looks like grated hard boiled egg yolk. I will let you in on a little hint…

…don't eat it, it sure doesn’t smell like egg yolk, unless it had been sitting in the sun for days!

I have been asked often if I am going to revise Mr. Stinky’s expected opening date, in light of Audrey jumping the expected gun by 3 days. I will look over things tomorrow when I have had some rest.

TitanWatch 5/6/03 ~ She was trying to show off her, dare I say…

There were a number of TV stations here today, but I couldn't keep up with the list. They are gone now, but I’ll see many of them again when 'Mr. Stinky' does his thang, as we say in Texas. One of the most enjoyable moments today was when the entire cast and crew with the new production of ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ came for a visit. The production opens tomorrow in the Actors’ Playhouse at Coral Gables famous Miracle Theater. I was lucky enough to talk to designer and master puppeteer, Martin P. Robinson. I asked him why my 'Audrey III' doesn’t talk like his 'Audrey II.' He wasn’t sure, but suggested that I’m lucky my Audrey has not yet developed the rich taste for eating people that his creation is famous for. Should I be worried?

A Prima Donna… That is what I think 'Audrey III' has become. When I got to Fairchild this morning the Guard told me that she doesn’t smell so terrible any more. I expected that, but if you have watched her on the web cam today you already know what I’m about to say. She has already closed up. It is the shortest-lived Titan I have bloomed. She stayed open less than 24 hours. Even though she has been closing slowly all day, I have to admit she is still very beautiful. As her elegant ruffled spathe closed around her she began to take on the look of a woman in a fancy party dress. It looked for all the world like she was trying to show off her, dare I say, cleavage. She is a prima donna all right. She’s been on TV and it went to her head. Maybe she is holding out for higher pay or more likely a pot of richer compost. Hopefully a person for dinner or should I say a human as dinner isn’t what is on her mind!

Now I am playing the Why Game. Why did she close so soon? Why did she wait so long to release her odor? I spent all day wondering why. Could the lighting we left on over night have affected the normal bloom pattern? With the flies she attracted, could she have been inadvertently pollinated? If she was, what else was in bloom? Most of the other species she was surrounded with were past their prime, but they might easily have still carried pollen. Was my baby deflowered? The Amorphophallus gigas were very short lived as well.

'Audrey III,' or 'Prissy' as Fairchild director calls her, still has not released her pollen. Actually I would not have expected that stage until in the morning anyway. I had my arm down her spathe and the male flowers were still closed tight. That was an odd sight to the visitors here at the time. I hope they don't think I was being rude.

TitanWatch 5/5/03 #3 ~ First odor for a first bloomer, 'Audrey III'

4:25 PM the first detectable odor. I had my nose down in the opening inflorescence. Every few minutes a little stronger "fragrance" is detected.

TitanWatch 5/5/03 #2 ~ How strange, 'Audrey III' is opening with no odor what so ever...

This is a first, 'Audrey III' is approximately 30% open, and she is releasing no odor at all. It makes it far easier to get up close and look into the beautiful burgundy spathe. This opening was quite a surprise... 3 to 4 days before expected. Looking over my notes earlier today I realize I should expect the unexpected. Each blooming has been a little different.

Two and a half days, that is how long I expect it to be open. Come one, Come all, Come see the greatest natural show on earth!

TitanWatch 5/5/03 3 P.M. ~ Audrey III Alert, Alert, Alert! she is opening right now

Watch it on the webcam from home. I just got here this afternoon, after trying for a day off. Silly me.

TitanWatch 5/4/03 ~ ‘Audrey III’ IS SHE or ISN'T SHE? That is the question.

Audrey III grew only one inch today. That is definitely a slow down in growth. One of the early warning signs of almost (almost) imminent release of poisonous gasses… Well, anyway, it smells like poisonous gas but I know "It is just a plant", "It is just a plant", I keep telling myself. This is my usual panic time, IS SHE or ISN'T SHE? That is the question.

Tonight I will comb over my past records to calm my nerves. I will create a chart of observations that should aid in future bloom estimates and let me sleep better. Ohhhhh Nooooo, what if she opens tonight… What if she opens tomorrow… My day off… maybe my day off… will I stay glued to the webcam on my home computer on Monday?

Why don't I get a life! Oh ya! This is my life…

TitanWatch 5/2/03 ~ Titan with a twist

The two tall Amorphophallus gigas that were in the background were moved away from the Titans. The tip of the spadix toppled on one of the plants and the entire spadix collapsed on the other. I was a worried that if they are past their prime, they could come crashing down. If one of them fell on a blooming Titan it could do a lot of damage.

I was actually surprised to see the Amorphophallus gigas deteriorate so quickly. One possibility that I will investigate next week is that all the flies attracted to the stench might have pollinated the gigas. There were several days when they were both in bloom together and the flies were landing on all parts of the plants, so I guess it could happen. If they were pollinated they will remain standing for many months.

While working on the display, I turned the 44" pot that 'Mr. Stinky' lives in so that the overlapping fold of the ruffled spathe would face the front of the display and the visitors. As I was doing that I found something strange, at least to me. Every Titan that I have bloomed had the spathe wrapped clockwise around the central spadix. When you face the inflorescence, you would normally see the right hand side of the spadix wraps over the top of the left-hand side. Not so this time on 'Mr. Stinky,' the left-hand side is overlapping the right. I looked at all the pictures of the Titans I have bloomed, including the last two times 'Mr. Stinky' has flowered, and the right was always overlapping the left side.

TitanWatch 4/30/03 ~ Rain Rain go away the Titans will bloom anyway

And now I'm a poet, ha! This morning the weather had me worried. I was expecting rain, but with no letup? I received a warning about 60 mph winds and large hail. At Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden there were only a few heavy gusts and the Titans are fairly well protected from that, but I was afraid large hail might break through the fragile screen above the heads of my Amorphophallus. Luckily hail passed us by.

TitanWatch 4/29/03

If 'Audrey III' opens on May 11th, it would be a Mother's Day bouquet a mom would never forget... I think I have been smelling a little too much Amorphophallus gigas. The odor from the A. gigas is dwindling. 'Audrey III' is showing the beginning of the burgundy/red color forming on the ruffled edge of the spathe.

TitanWatch 4/28/03 ~ Double Trouble in a big way!

Well it is quite obvious this morning that this place stinks. It really stinks! But that's a good thing. Both of the Amorphophallus gigas are doing their best to give me a headache. The stench is almost more than I can stand. I bet I won't be having any lunch today. Because there is a hole in the screen in the Amorphophallus display area, I have flies, and where do you think they are? All over the top of the A. gigas spadix. I guess it is fitting, but is adds to the impression THAT IT REALLY STINKS IN HERE! Anyway, Devil Tongue theatrics over lets get on to the real subject of this TitanWatch update...

There are two, YES I SAID TWO, Amorphophallus titanum tubers coming into bloom. Since I was here Saturday afternoon the Titan known as 'Mr. Stinky' has relaxed it's sheath and there are the beautiful folds of the spathe accordioned around the spathe. 'Audrey III' the other A. titanum will have company. I guess we are in for quite a show. 'Mr. Stinky' appears at this time to be about 6-7 days behind 'Audrey III.'

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