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Mar 21

Organism of the week #10 – The shapeless cock-of-the-gods

I missed last week, so this week’s is a biggun, to make up for my tardiness.

Bow down before The Shapeless Cock-of-the-Gods:

Amorphophallus titanum inflorescence [CC-BY-2.0 Alex Lomas]

Amorphophallus titanum inflorescence

Apparently, when this plant was filmed for The Private Life of Plants in 1995, David Attenborough decided to invent the term “titan arum” to avoid using the plant’s Latin (well, Greek, really) name on prime-time BBC-1:

Amorphophallus titanum

  • ἄμορφος (amorphos) = without form, shapeless
  • φαλλός (phallos) = phallus, penis, cock
  • Τιτάν (Titan) = primaeval Greek god

Coming from Croydon, euphemism has never been my strong point. The titan arum will always be the shapeless cock-of-the-gods to me.

Interestingly, the closest British relative of the cock-of-the-gods is lords-and-ladies, otherwise known as the cuckoo-pint. The “pint” here does not refer to the unit of volume, but is a contraction of the Old English word pintle, which also means phallus, penis or cock. There’s evidently something about the flowers of arum lilies that brings out the grubby little school-boy in taxonomists.

Arum maculatum [CC-BY-SA-3.0 Sannse@Wikipedia]

Arum maculatum [CC-BY-SA-3.0 Sannse@Wikipedia]

The cock-of-the-gods is rather rare – possibly even endangered – in its native Sumatra, but Kew Gardens have a number of potted cocks in the Princess of Wales Conservatory. Its leaves are no less impressive than its inflorescence. The photo below might look like a small tree, but is in fact one massive, much-subdivided leaf.

Amorphophallus titanum leaf [CC-BY-2.0 Alex Lomas]

Amorphophallus titanum leaf

The cock-of-the-gods often gets touted as the largest flower in the world. This is technically untrue: the largest flower in the word is that of the parasitic Rafflesia:

Rafflesia arnoldii [CC-BY-2.0 ma_suska@Wikipedia]

Rafflesia arnoldii [CC-BY-2.0 ma_suska@Wikipedia] Two things this plant shares with the cock-of-the-gods are its home (Sumatra) and its foul odour: both are pollinated by flies attracted by an odour mimicking rotting carrion

What looks like the flower of the cock-of-the-gods is really a mass of tiny flowers on a central spike (the spadix) entirely surrounded by a large colourful leaf (the spathe). The same arrangement is found in most other arum lilies, including Swiss cheese plants, skunk cabbage, and peace lilies:

Unidentified aroid [CC-BY-SA-3.0 Steve Cook]

Some arum lily or other. You can see the tiny unopened flowers on the surface of the spadix: they’re packed together so tightly they are squished into hexagons.

Kew’s potted cocks are often in flower around May. The inflorescence doesn’t last for long, and they don’t get produced every year, so if @KewGardens tweet that it’s about to flower, you’ve got about a week to see it before it collapses into a rancid sack of squelch.

Amorphophallus titanum bud [CC-BY-2.0 Alex Lomas]

Amorphophallus titanum bud

Strangely enough, the smallest flower in the world belongs to a relative of the cock-of-the-gods, a kind of duckweed called Wolffia:

Wolffia colombiana [CC-BY-2.0 Alex Lomas]

Wolffia colombiana, each barely visible speck of green in the beaker is an entire duck-weed plant

The ubiquity of duckweed and the rarity of the cock-of-the-gods is clear evidence that that it’s not size that matters, but what you do with it.

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