Podcast Review: Botanical Mystery Tour

My interest is piqued any time plants are featured or plugged in popular culture. Hence my ongoing series of posts, Botany in Popular Culture, featuring Futurama, Saga of the Swamp Thing, etc. Plants just don’t get enough airtime, so it must be celebrated when they do. Which is why I was excited to learn about Chicago Botanic Garden‘s new podcast, Botanical Mystery Tour, in which the plants referenced in pop culture take center stage.

The hosts, as they state in each episode’s introduction, “dive into the botany hidden in our favorite stories.” To help with the discussion, they bring in experts that work at Chicago Botanic Garden to explore the science (and fiction) behind the plant references. In addition to discussing pop culture and the related science, the guests share details about the work they do at the Garden and some of the research they are working on.

In the first episode, Jasmine and Erica ask Paul CaraDonna about the drone bees featured in an episode of Black Mirror. Since many bee species are in decline, will we have to resort to employing robot bees to pollinate plants that rely on bee-assisted pollination? A great discussion about native bees and colony collapse disorder ensues.

(But maybe the idea of autonomous drone insects isn’t too far-fetched…)

In episode two, the hosts ask why humans are so obsessed with corpse flowers. Thousands of people flock to botanical gardens to see these humongous, stinky flowers on the rare occasions they are in bloom, so what is so appealing about Amorphophallus titanum? Patti Vitt joins the discussion to share details about this fascinating plant.

A corpse flower in bloom is a brief and uncommon occurrence, reminiscent of the Sumatran Century Flower in The Simpsons and the 40 Year Orchid in Dennis the Menace.

 

The third episode features the sarlaccs of Star Wars. It turns out, sarlaccs are carnivorous plants. This discovery spawns an interesting discussion with horticulturist Tom Weaver about what defines a carnivorous plant and the various ways that different carnivorous plant species capture and kill their prey.

The fourth (and latest) episode is an exploration into the magical world of mushrooms. In Alice in Wonderland, Alice encounters a large, hookah-smoking caterpillar sitting atop a giant mushroom. Are there mushrooms big enough that a person could actually sit on them like Alice does? Greg Mueller joins the podcast to address this and many other mycology-based questions. The conversation includes a great discussion about why a botanical garden (whose main focus is plants) would be interested in fungus.

The discussions in this podcast are fun and enlightening. The hosts shine the spotlight on often overlooked characters in popular media, and with the help of their guests, lead captivating conversations about the science related to these characters. With only a handful of episodes available so far, it will be easy to get caught up. And then you, like me, will find yourself anxiously looking forward to embarking on another Botanical Mystery Tour.

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Is there a plant-themed podcast or podcast episode you would like to recommend? Please do so in the comment section below.

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Corpse Flower Blooms Again

It is not often that a plant in bloom makes headlines, but that is precisely what happened last week when another corpse flower bloomed at Missouri Botanical Garden. Amorphophallus titanum, commonly known as titan arum or corpse flower, is a rare species, both in cultivation and in the wild. It also rarely flowers, and when it does, the bloom only lasts for a few short days. It has the largest known unbranched inflorescence, and its flowers give off the scent of rotting flesh. For all these reasons, it is understandable why a blooming corpse flower might make the news.

Titan arums naturally occur in the western portion of an Indonesian island called Sumatra. Their future is threatened because they occur in rainforests that are currently being deforested for timber and palm oil production. Deforestation is also threatening the survival of the rhinoceros hornbill, a bird that is an important seed distributor of titan arums. Today there are a few hundred titan arums in cultivation in botanical gardens throughout the world. They are a difficult species to cultivate, but their presence in botanical gardens is important in order to learn more about them and to help educate the public about conservation efforts.

Amorphophaulls titanium, titan arum (photo credit: eol.org)

(photo credit: eol.org)

Titan arums are in the arum family (Araceae), a family that consists of around 107 genera including Caladium (elephant ears), Arisaema (jack-in-the-pulpits), and Wolffia (duckweeds), a genus that wins the records for smallest flowering plant and smallest fruit. Titan arums are famous for their giant inflorescence, which can reach more than 10 feet tall. The flowering stalk is known botanically as a spadix, a fleshy stem in the shape of a spike that is covered with small flowers. The spadix of titan arums are wrapped with a leaf-like sheath called a spathe. Upon blooming, the temperature inside the spathe rises and the flowers begin to release a very foul odor, similar to the smell of rotting flesh. This attracts pollinating insects such as carrion beetles, sweat bees, and flesh flies, which get trapped inside the sheath and covered with pollen. After a few hours the top of the spadix begins to wither, allowing the insects to escape, off to pollinate a neighboring corpse flower [the spadix includes male and female flowers, which mature at different times in order to prevent self-pollination]. Once pollinated, the flowers begin to form small red fruits which are eaten by birds. The seeds are then dispersed in their droppings.

The large, stinky inflorescence is not the only structure that gives titan arums their fame. They are also known for their massive single leaf, which can reach up to 20 feet tall and 15 feet wide, the size of a large shrub or small tree. All of this growth is produced from an enormous underground storage organ called a corm. The corms of mature titan arums typically weigh more than 100 pounds, with some known to weigh more than 200 pounds. Titan arums bloom only after the corms have reached a mature size, which takes from seven to ten years. After that they bloom about once a year or once every other year, depending on when the corm has accumulated enough nutrients to support the giant flowering structure.

Below are two time lapse videos of titan arums in bloom. The first is from Missouri Botanical Garden, and the second is from United States Botanic Garden.



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