What do zoo gardeners get each other for Christmas? A plant, of course – but not just any old plant. Gardeners at Paignton Zoo in Devon have given their colleagues at Marwell Zoo in Hampshire a Titan arum – one of the largest and smelliest plants in the world.
Titan arum (Amorphophallus titanum) blooms can be up to 3 metres high and 3 metres in circumference and smell like rotting meat. To be honest, this one looks a bit underwhelming right now – there’s no foliage, just the tuber, the swollen food store found underneath the soil. Big plants need big tubers – this one is more than 19 kilos, the weight of a 5-year-old girl…
Paignton Zoo Head Gardener Catherine Mortimer said: “Our success with Titans has been great for fostering links with other botanical organisations and gaining recognition for our horticultural efforts. It’s great to be able to share - we have a good relationship with our colleagues at Marwell. This is a gift for their new tropical house – it looks like a big pot of earth, but if it blooms this year they’ll know all about it!”
Paignton Zoo has an excellent record with Titans, with three other mature specimens on site and 49 seedlings cultivated from a previous flowering. Catherine: “Now is the time to move the plant, as it’s dormant – you simply can’t do it while it’s growing, you have to wait for it to die back to the tuber.”
Three zoo gardeners travelled with the plant. They then showed Marwell’s gardens team how to repot the plant and offered some tips for care. Catherine: “This Titan is a good size now - we think it might even flower in 2019!”
Lance Ingram, Plants and Landscape Team Manager for Marwell Wildlife near Winchester, said: “We’re delighted with the gift from Paignton Zoo and have the precious plant in a safe place for the time being. We’re hoping it will flower this coming summer and look forward to updating our guests once it is on display.”
In 2012, Paignton Zoo was the first zoological collection in the UK to have a Titan arum bloom. The gardens team succeeded again in 2015 and saw two more bloom in 2017. They were able to pollinate one of these, and shared seeds with other zoos and botanical gardens. 2018 saw a fifth, Audrey II – the Zoo’s first autumn Titan and at over 235 centimetres, the tallest bud so far.
The plant comes from the rainforests of Sumatra and is a member of the Arum family. Its conservation status on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Plants has recently been increased from Vulnerable to Endangered. It has one of the largest flowers in the world; the bloom – correctly, an inflorescence – is green on the outside and bright red inside, with ribbed sides and a frilled edge. Due to its odour – said to be like rotting meat – it’s known as a carrion flower, and has been dubbed corpse flower or corpse plant. It emits the strong smell at night to attract pollinators.