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Welcome to My Jungle - August, 2014

Recently, I have been around a number of plants that makes one think of death and rebirth in some manner or another, and oddly enough each one has been quite beautiful. Let's start with the corpse flower (Amorphophallus titanium), which is also known as titan arum. Missouri Botanical Garden has had two of these rare-to-bloom giants blooms this year and it is quite the sight to see, dead animal smell and all. Native to western Sumatra (Indonesia), the aroma of the titan arum resembles rotting meat which attracts carrion-eating beetles and flesh flies that pollinate it. And let me tell you, you smell it well before you see it—but what a sight to behold. Being the largest unbranched inflorescence in the world, what greets you is a giant spadix (central spike) with flowers at the base wrapped by an upward facing spathe (sheathing bract), which looks like a supersized trumpet. On the outside, the spathe is a beautiful green at the base and fades to yellow towards the upped edge but is dark blood red on the inside, with a deeply accordion folded texture. The spadix, which appears to shoot out of the mouth of the spathe resembles a giant yellow tongue aimed at the sky—think "Little Shop of Horrors." Near the bottom of the spadix, hidden from view inside the sheath of the spathe, the spadix bears a ring of male flower over a ring of female flowers. The inflorescence doesn't stick around though. Once the flower is fully unfurled and receptive to pollination, the spathe begins to wilt after about 12 hours—some lasting as long as 48 hours. Nevertheless, if you get a chance to see a titan arum in bloom, don't delay or you might miss the show.

On a recent trip to Mobile Alabama, I noted two really cool plants to add to my death and rebirth group. Ever heard of the resurrection fern (Pleopeltis polypodioides)? Resurrection ferns are epiphytes and according to literature can be found in Southern Illinois growing on hardwoods. In addition they are found throughout the subtropical areas of the Americas and Southern Africa. It gets its name because it can survive extensive periods of drought. In fact, it is reported that a resurrection fern can lose over 90% of its water weight and still survive. In comparison, most plants and animals start dying off in the 10-15% water loss range. The ferns I saw were really lush and green but from what I understand, the fronds start curling up and desiccating during drought periods in such a way that when rain comes again, the cells can rehydrate without permanent damage. This is accomplished by the synthesis of dehydrins during drying which allows the cell walls to fold in a way which can be reversed later. There are some really neat time lapse videos on YouTube that show this phenomenon.

I have seen a lot of unique and wonderful landscapes, and one of the best was The Nature Conservancy's Splinter Hill Bog which is about 45 miles northeast of Mobile. Their claim to fame is much of the site is occupied by some of the largest and most visually impressive white-topped pitcher plant (Sarracenia leucophylla) bogs world wide—WOW! Pitcher plants are carnivorous plants that have evolved modified leaves known as a pitfall traps to lure and trap prey in a deep cavity filled with liquid. Pitcher plants are like greased pigs, they secrete molecules that cause the entry to the pitcher to be very slick. Insects don't have a chance if they ride on the "slip and slide" into the pitcher because the pitcher is usually lined with backward facing hair or some other method to keep the insect from escaping. Once they fall in the liquid held in the base, they eventually drown and then are consumed (dissolved) by the plant. I might also mention that I saw several other cool carnivorous plants in the wild, including sundews (Drosera capillaris and D. tracyi) and the purple pitcher plant (Sarracenia purpurea).

Since I mentioned the resurrection fern, obviously I need to mention the resurrection lily (Lycoris squamigera), also known as magic lilies, surprise lilies or naked ladies. Though not native to the Americas, it is well established throughout the Midwest. The leaves sprout and grow in the spring just like any other bulb, but then die back during June without any bloom. Then in late July or early August, the flower stalks spring suddenly from the ground in mid to late summer with no accompanying leaves. This suddenness and leafless nature is reflected in its common names and usually takes only four to five days from emergence to bloom. Resurrection lilies don't always emerge the following season after planting, sometimes not for two or three years. Then, when you have given up hope, they surprise you for first time in many years to come.