Sunday 17 November 2013

Giant, Misshapen Penises

Image: James Gaither
Titan Arum, Amorphophallus Titanum
That's what you need when life gets you down: huge, colourful, misshapen penises. If we're lucky, they might even smell of rotting flesh and be covered in flies and beetles! Yaaay!

We're taking an uncomfortable look at Amorphophallus, a name which comes from the Greek for "misshapen penis" in case anyone thinks I'm just being dirty for the sake of it. It's a genus of some 200 members within the Arum, or Aroid family. They stand proud and erect from west Africa to the Pacific Islands, looking like huge, unsavoury monuments as amorphous as they are phallic. Turns out those moai statues on Easter Island stop just in time.

Image: Luke Mackin
Man and his giant penis. A love that dare not shut up about itself.
The most famous species in Amorphophallus is doubtless Sumatra's A. titanum, the Titan Arum. It can reach up to 3 metres (10 feet) tall in its flowering stage, so it is certainly a titan among misshapen penises. One is simply unaccustomed to looking up at such things. Perhaps it wouldn't be so bad if it was more shapely. Or maybe it would be worse?

The Titan Arum is often called "the biggest flower in the world", but that isn't strictly true. What looks like a giant petal is actually a spathe, a sort of modified leaf. It's wrapped around the spadix, which is the towering finger (or penis) shaped bit. The actual flowers are tiny and grow on the spadix, which is the norm for Aroids.

Image: Barry Rice
Clusters of tiny flowers.
Male pollen-bearers above, female pollen-receivers below
Each individual Amorphophallus has both male and female flowers hidden away at the base of the spadix. A structure with flowers growing on it is called an inflorescence, and the Titan Arum has the biggest unbranched inflorescence in the world. Some other plants have an even bigger inflorescence, but those ones are bushy, branching affairs. Messy, in other words, and not particularly phallic.


Image: Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History, Department of Botany
A. gigas
A mighty warrior poses with his even mightier hollow-point spear
The Titan Arum is huge but it's squat. Like an enormous teapot, short and stout, though it has no handle and not much of a spout. A. gigas is different. With a height of over 4 metres (13 feet) it's long enough to join the Macedonian phalanx were it so inclined, but that's mostly down to its long stalk. The actual flowering bit is smaller than the Titan's.

Strangely enough, A.gigas lives in Sumatra, too, though it's more widespread than the Titan because it can tolerate drier conditions. Another plant, Rafflesia arnoldii, which really is the biggest single flower in the world, is found only in Borneo and... Sumatra. What's up with Sumatra? Sounds like Blofeld's Garden of Death may be making a comeback. Smells like it, too...

A. gigas and A. titanum (and Rafflesia arnoldii as it happens) are all great, big stinkers. They pong! It seems that the mighty spadix is mostly there as a malodorous broadcast tower, sending the stench far and wide. They can even produce heat, which fools flies and beetles into thinking they've found something rotting and therefore tasty.

Image: David Bygott
Beetles! Yaaay!
Like the Dead Horse Arum, some members of Amorphophallus trap their guests overnight using spikes, warts or hairs which prevent escape. The female flowers are receptive to pollen for just one day, so hopefully those flies and beetles will bring some pollen from another flower. The next day, when the female flowers are no longer receptive, the male flowers bloom and sprinkle pollen all over the trapped guests just before they're released. Hopefully they'll immediately get trapped by yet another Arum. The FOOLS! Muhahahahaaaa!

Poor flies and beetles... They were attracted there in the first place because it smelt fishy, but they didn't realise just how fishy it was.

Image: duncan c
Within days the spathe and spadix collapse and rot away. All that's left is a stump covered in berries and seeds where the female flowers used to be.

Video: phippsconservatory
Ever more titanic! Video was sent my way by Dear Reader Debra.
Thanks Debra!

But that isn't the end for Amorphophallus. The giant, eye-catching bits come and go, but the seat of their soul lies underground.

Image: Barry Rice
Titan Arum's corm dug up from the ground
It's called the corm. Everyone in Amorphophallus has some kind of bulky, bulbous thing underground in which they store starch and water. It's a bit like a lich's phylactery. If you're concerned that your malformed penis may be evil, you must destroy its corm to prevent regeneration.

Some Amorphophallus corms are edible. They're often a bit nasty and eaten only in the most dire of circumstances, but one species called A. konjac is popular in Japan. The plant itself is found from Japan, China and down to Indonesia. Its spadix can reach 60 cm (2 feet) long and the corm may be almost 30 cm (a foot) across. That's a BIG potato!

Image: Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History, Department of Botany
A. konjac. In deep discussion, apparently
A. konjac can be used to make flour, noodles and some kind of gelatinous stuff that's healthy... tofu... vegan... diets and all that. Basically, it's not yet as popular as it will probably become. It must overcome some problems to become the new pomegranate, though. For one, the plant is commonly called "Devil's Tongue". And the jelly isn't like normal jelly, you have to chew it properly or you could choke and possibly die. Even I would concede that that's tremendously unhealthy. It's not fattening, but it's really bad for your complexion.

Also, one taste tester described some effects after eating it for lunch and dinner (comment from that link again):

"Basically, I felt very disconnected from myself, but at the same time, I knew that my existence was nothing more than a piss in the wind. I was fleeting as a vapor, good as dead already. Worthless. Pointless. The universe was a fathomless void, ready to swallow me whole."

So that's where all that Japanese haiku comes from!

a piss in the wind
was fleeting as a vapour
I knew nothing more

Image: Moorea Biocode
A. paeoniifolius
Take a close look and you can see that the "stems" are actually part of the leaf!
It should be clear that Amorphophallus doesn't want to be eaten. They would much rather grow and touch the sky with their freakishly massive leaf.

It's weird, but Amorphophallus Arums really do have one gigantic leaf! It grows straight up out of the ground and splits into lots of small leaflets. The whole thing looks like a miniature tree, unless it's a Titan Arum. Their leafy stage can be 6 metres (20 feet) tall, which isn't so miniature.

mage: Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History, Department of Botany
Titan Arum's one, enormous leaf
There's no spathe, spadix or flowers at this time, it's all about growth and energy storage. It's common for Amorphophallus Arums to enter a dormant stage, where the mighty leaf dies away during the dry season. This leafy-dormancy cycle can go on for years before the Arum sends up a spathe to blossom instead of the usual leaf, and then it could be another few years before it blossoms again.

Image: Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History, Department of Botany
A. bulbifer
It's worth noting that not all Amorphophallus Arums look and smell like giant slabs of rotting aliens. Some are rather pretty and they can smell quite nice, too. And who am I to judge the lifestyle choices of an Arum? If they choose to be pretty and fragrant, that's fine by me...

Image: Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History, Department of Botany
A. prainii
Or if they want to look like some kind of marshmallow carving...

Image: Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History, Department of Botany
A. symonianus
Or be all demure and coddle their phallus like a babe in arms... It's all good. Great! CONGRATULATIONS!

Image: Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History, Department of Botany
A. muelleri
Just allow me some giant, misshapen penises bursting forth from their wrapping atop thin, perilous stems.

Image: Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History, Department of Botany
A. lambii
Allow me the obscenity.



TexWisGirl said...

i read your post title and shook my head. you did not disappoint at all. :)

Joseph JG said...

Haha! :P

Joseph JG said...


??? said...

If I remember correctly, David Attenborough was the one who came up with Titan Arum as a common name for his series Life of Plants because he didn't fancy saying Amorphophallus all the time. Understandable.

Joseph JG said...

That's what I heard. I'm sure he wouldn't want to think of it like that when it's towering over him!