Vines for Spring

I’m taking a break from writing a regular post this time around. It’s the first week of spring, and there is a lot going on. I hope you are getting outside and enjoying the warmer weather (at least those of you in the northern hemisphere anyway). It was a pretty mild winter in my neck of the woods, but that doesn’t diminish my excitement when I see plants start to flower and leaf out. The gray days of winter are largely behind us, and holing up in my cave of an apartment is suddenly less appealing.

What I have for you this week are some short video clips. I recently joined Vine, a short-form, video-sharing social media site where each post is a six second, looped video. I’m late to the scene as usual, but I’ve been having fun messing around with it. The following videos are some of my first attempts (and lousy ones at that); if I decide to stick with it you can expect better content. If you’re interested in this sort of thing, please join, follow, favorite, share, like, comment, etc. Regardless, I hope you will find time to pry yourself away from a screen and experience nature during this beautiful and singular time of year.





Awkward Botany is also on Twitter and Tumblr, so feel free to follow me there too if you would like. Happy Spring!


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:

(photo credit:

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.

Do you like what you see here? If so, please share Awkward Botany with your friends. Use any form of social media you favor. Or just tell someone in person…the old fashioned way. However you do it, please help me spread the word. Awkward Botany: for the phyto-curiosity in all of us.

Article: The Intelligent Plant

The New Yorker’s last issue in 2013 included an article by Michael Pollan called “The Intelligent Plant” in which Pollan explores some of the latest research revealing the ability of plants to sense their environment in ways that are analogous to seeing, hearing, and smelling. In the article Pollan dialogs back and forth between plant scientists who call this line of research “plant neurobiology” and plant scientists who seem to abhor that term. As the article progresses, you learn that the arguments between the two groups are not necessarily about the science itself but about vocabulary. Can plants learn the way we understand the term, to learn? Can we really say that plants are intelligent or conscious? Aren’t those traits reserved for organisms with brains? And regarding brains, plants don’t have them, so why plant neurobiology? Neuroscience is the study of nervous systems, so plant neurobiology must be a misnomer, right?

Well, despite the arguments over language, the research is pretty compelling. Plants are proving to be more aware of their surroundings and their actions seem to be more calculated than we originally assumed. They are not simply sessile organisms being acted upon, but they are doing some acting – lots of it, in fact. It is a remarkable field of study (whether you choose to refer to it as plant neurobiology or something else), and it will be exciting to see where it takes us.

Pollan’s article is worth a read if you can find the time (be warned, it’s lengthy), and it’s getting some coverage. Pollan recently appeared on Science Friday with Ira Flatow where he talked about his experience researching the article. And Pollan, of course, isn’t the only one talking about this stuff, Wired featured an article about it last month as well.

Check out this video associated with Pollan’s article (narrated by Pollan) of bean plants that appear to be deliberately reaching out to grab onto a pole.

sensitive plant

sensitive plant – Mimosa pudica

photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Related Posts

Book Review: What a Plant Knows

Documentary: What Plants Talk About

Documentary: What Plants Talk About

Earlier this summer I posted a review of a book called, What a Plant Knows, by Daniel Chamovitz. It’s a book that describes plant senses – senses that are similar to human senses (i.e. seeing, hearing, smelling, etc.). Plants are much more aware of their surroundings than we might initially think, and so I recommend this book to anyone interested in gaining a better understanding of plants and their “awareness”. However, I also understand that this can be an intimidating subject – especially for those who haven’t spent much time studying plants and their biology. Chamovitz wrote his book with the intention of making this subject accessible to everyone. Anyone with even a limited understanding of biology should be able to understand the basic concepts in Chamovitz’s book. However, the subject can still be challenging.

Luckily, a recent documentary by PBS explores similar concepts. It simplifies things even more – exploring the ways in which plants communicate with the world around them, even without having the organs we typically attribute to communication and awareness (i.e. brains, ears, eyes, etc.). The documentary is called What Plants Talk About. I watched it recently and was reminded of Chamovitz’s book. They fit together so well. If you have any interest in this subject at all, I recommend both. If all you are after is a simple introduction, watch the documentary. If the documentary intrigues you, read the book.

There is a lot more to learn about plants and their “awareness,” but these sources are a great start. Watch the documentary and/or read the book and then let me know what you think in the comments below. Meanwhile, we wait in anticipation of what science might discover next concerning this remarkable aspect of the plant kingdom.

Plants on Rooftops in South Carolina

Here is a video featuring a couple of folks in South Carolina introducing green roof technology. I have a particular interest in green roofs that stems from my fascination with plants and my interests in urban ecology and being environmentally conscious.  I will eventually post more about green roofs and urban ecology as I have already promised. This should tide you over for now.