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  • Rare Plant Achieves Sexual Maturity

    Barron Rugge, UCSB greenhouse director, used a long-handle dauber to pollinate the 5-foot-tall plant.

    What do you call a visitor from another land who lives in your house for nearly seven years, then, when it's ready to reproduce, doubles its height in just two weeks, and emits an odor that humans find overpoweringly obnoxious? "Stinky" comes to mind, but "Tiny" is what Barron Rugge and his UCSB greenhouse colleagues nicknamed the 5-foot-tall native of Indonesia.
    Botanists long ago dubbed it Amorphophallus titanum, or titan arum, which is the plant genus that includes calla lillies. Some also call Tiny a "corpse flower" because of the stench during its two-day bloom. Rugge, who is director of the greenhouse, explained that in the tropics flies and carrion beetles, the plant's primary pollinators, are drawn to the scent of this rare plant.
    Like many plants, Tiny has male and female parts. They come into play on alternate days during blooming, which first occurs when the plant is seven to 10 years old, and thereafter every three to four years. "It's a girl the first day, and a boy the second," he said.
    In mid-August, he performed part of the insects' role, daubing pollen from a Huntington Gardens' A. titanum on flower buds hidden at the UCSB plant's base on the day it was female. This was Rugge's first pollination cycle for Tiny, which he received as a 1-year-old seed, so he felt both excited and anxious about the process. It turned out he had reason to worry.
    The next day, when it changed to male, he found there was no pollen to collect from the massive central stalk. Later, he decided that he had allowed the day and night temperatures in the greenhouse to fall too low for the tropical visitor.
    There is a ring of titan cultivators in the United States, and they share news as well as pollen. UCSB's plant was the fifth to bloom this year in California, Rugge reported; last year 14 of them flowered.
    The next step is to wait for Tiny to go to seed. Then, human pollinators will spread the plant's genetic legacy.