By Erin Bank
For only the second time in its 12-year lifespan, Terra the Titan bloomed at the San Francisco Conservatory of Flowers in August 2020. Terra is an Amorphophallus titanum, also known as Titan Arum or a corpse flower. Besides their giant size and unique structure, A. titanum are known for their putrid aroma that smells like rotting flesh.
As Sarah Sawtelle, the manager of engagement at the Conservatory, puts it: “It is a stinky plant for a stinky year.”
Everything about A. titanum is giant. When it blooms, it sends up a towering yellow spadix that can grow up to 10 feet tall. Inside the base of the spadix are rings of tiny flowers, called an inflorescence. Wrapped around the spadix and protecting these flowers is a skirt-like spathe, which is burgundy on the inside and green on the outside. Locals may see a resemblance to the ubiquitous calla lily: they are in the same subfamily that also includes the common duckweed, skunk cabbage, and Jack-in-the-pulpit.
When it is not blooming, the plant sends up a leaf structure that is large and branched enough to resemble a small tree. Below the earth, energy is stored in a tuber-like structure called a corm that usually weighs more than 100 pounds.
A. titanum is native to Sumatra, Indonesia, where it grows on steep limestone cliffs hidden deep in the rainforests. Due to habitat loss, A. titanum is endangered, with fewer than 1,000 plants in the wild. Botanical gardens like the Conservatory of Flowers are key to the survival of the species.
In the wild, A. titanum is pollinated when dung beetles, flesh flies and other carnivorous insects visit the flower. They are attracted by the intense odor produced by the spadix to mimic the carrion the insects normally feed and lay their eggs upon. Pollen sticks to the legs of the insects, which they carry to the next flower which can result in cross pollination.
Here in San Francisco, the plants need a little help from the Conservatory’s horticulturists to pollinate. The goal is to produce viable seeds to allow the species to survive in cultivation.
Terra was donated to the Conservatory by an amateur botanist who had purchased the plant and its two siblings from a plant sale at the University of California, Berkeley. The trio was moved from their previous home – the bathroom of a Mission District apartment – to the Conservatory in 2014.
Terra first bloomed in 2017, attracting long lines of visitors to the Conservatory to view – and smell – its display. The bloom only lasts about 48 hours, and the horticulturists cannot accurately predict the precise day of the bloom until about a week in advance.
The second bloom this year, amid the global COVID-19 pandemic and wildfires across the state of California, was especially exciting for the staff at the Conservatory.
“We really have tried to stay connected to our community, but that’s a hard thing to do when you can’t open your doors,” Sawtell said.
It was important for Sawtell and her colleagues to treat Terra’s bloom like the special occasion it was, which meant creating a safe way to have it on display.
So, before it bloomed, Terra was moved to the entry vestibule of the Conservatory, where a special plexiglass barrier was constructed to keep it protected from the cool and foggy San Francisco weather. Although visitors were not allowed inside, they could still get a sense of the smell.
“On bloom night, when the stench was really prominent, we turned on some fans and piped the smell around the side of the plexiglass. Visitors’ descriptions were very colorful,” Sawtell said.
Over the two-day bloom from Aug. 17-19, more than 1,600 people were able to view Terra for free, lining up six feet apart on the path in front of the vestibule, snapping photos and peering up at the towering spadix. Even more were able to tune in to the Conservatory’s YouTube videos and live streams.
“With COVID-19 keeping us closed since March, and admissions and events being our main revenue sources, the financial impact on our organization has been tremendous (like for so many)! The support of our community is more important than ever right now,” Sawtell said.
For more information, visit www.conservatoryofflowers.org.
Categories: Golden Gate Park