Monthly Archives: August 2012

Trees, Sun, and an Audrey Update

curly willow

I used to hesitate when trying to decide if a tree needed to be cut down. But not any more! Both the Botanical Gardens and my home garden have become significantly shadier in the past few years. It’s inevitable if there are trees around! And while trees are important, not to mention beautiful, if there’s anything else you would like to grow, the trees have to go. I love them for their sense of permanence, their cool shade in summer,  their habitat for birds and wildlife. For firewood, autumn leaves, and fruit.  I curse them when I want to grow tomatoes, sunflowers, strawberries or corn!

trees and shade gardenThis part of the garden was adapted long ago to the trees which tower over it. A thriving shady border, with plants that love the cool and moist soil.  It’s a case of “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” for a dedicated gardener! But if you can “beat ’em”, if they are not your neighbor’s trees, not historically  or environmentally significant, beloved perhaps but not necessarily important, then she who hesitates is lost. Cut down the trees, make yourself a sunny spot, and let your garden grow.

stumpAUDREY UPDATE: August 31, 2012

spathe of titan arumOver the past two days Audrey’s growth has slowed. Instead of 3 inches a day, it has been just one. Now at 51 inches, actual bloom time is drawing near! The  bracts have fallen away, the spathe is coloring up around it’s frilled edge and all we have to do is wait. Check back with “Thoughts from the Garden” this weekend to get the latest photos of our tropical curiosity.

titan arum


Audrey Update

Hello Plant Lovers,

Audrey the Titan Arum is continuing to grow 3 inches every day.  Trying to predict when the flower will really begin to open is a bit like guessing what day a baby will be born!

titan arum august 24

August 24, 2012

titan arum august 25 2012

August 25, 2012

titan arum august 27

August 27, 2012

Randy Stevenson, a videographer and technician at URI’s Department of Communication and Marketing has been instrumental in helping us get footage of Audrey. Here’s Randy setting up a live webcast in the Conservatory as well as a time-lapse camera which will show the flower opening.

cameras in conservatoryAnd here’s Audrey this morning standing tall at 48 inches!

titan arum august 28

August 28, 2012

And a close up of the beautiful frilled spathe, the circumference of which can reach up to 3 meters/approx 9 feet.

titan arum spathe

Spathe. August 28, 2012

In the last post, I said that A. titanum is endangered. Here’s why: Habitat destruction is occurring through much of Indonesia at an alarming rate and with it ecosystem breakdown – loss of pollinators and seed distributors. The Titan Arum is long-lived, but does not flower often…less than once a year. This doesn’t give it many opportunities to distribute seeds and reproduce before possible destruction of it’s native rainforest.

“The rainforests of Sumatra are under massive threat of deforestation, as vast areas are logged for timber and to make way for oil palm plantations. It is estimated that Indonesia has now lost around 72% of its original rainforest cover, and the scale of deforestation is continuing at an alarming rate. As well as affecting titan arum numbers directly, the loss of habitat is also endangering species such as the rhinoceros hornbill (Buceros rhinoceros), which is an important seed distributor. ” (from the Kew Royal Botanical Gardens website)

Kew goes on to say:

“This species has proved very difficult to cultivate, and there are only a handful of places in the world that do so. Even under optimum conditions the plant takes about six years to flower from seed.”

lifecycle of the titan arum

(Image courtesy of University of California, Davis)

Biggest Flower in the Littlest State

1940: Amorphophallus Titanum the world's largest flower in full blossom

Sumatra, Indonesia, 1940

Amorphophallus titanum, otherwise known as the Titan Arum, is a rare and endangered plant from the rainforest island of Sumatra. In 2009, the URI Botanical Gardens obtained a Titan Arum corm (a bulb-like structure) to add to our tropical plant collection. Now, after two years of vegetative growth alternating with months-long dormant periods, “Audrey” is about to flower!

sign for titan arum in greenhouse

The Titan Arum, also known as “Corpse Flower” for it’s odor of rotting meat, has the largest unbranched inflorescence in the world. In cultivation it can be 4 to 6, or even 8 feet tall, and more in it’s native habitat. Right now ours is growing about three inches a day. It will keep up this rapid pace until it is ready to open, when growth will slow. The unpleasant smell of the bloom, along with the fleshy red and maroon “meaty” colors, attract the flies and beetles (of the family Sarcophagidae) which pollinate it.

titan arum august 20 2012

Kingston, RI, August 20 2012

A.titanum was discovered in Sumatra by the Italian botanist Odoardo Beccari in 1878.  A specimen was shipped to the Royal Botanical Gardens in England, where the plant was displayed and bloomed for the first time in cultivation in 1889. It may take 15 years for the Titan Arum to become large enough to bloom, and it is especially rare to see in cultivation. According to the UC Davis website, where more than one Titan Arum has bloomed, these  giants have been coaxed into flower only about 100 times worldwide. Definitely a first in Rhode Island!

Kingston, RI, August 21 2012

Kingston, RI, August 22, 2012

Kingston, RI, August 23 2012

Our plant has grown 9 inches in three days! In addition to height and circumference measurements, temperature is an indicator of impending bloom time. The temperature of the spadix rises to almost 98 degrees F to help volatilize the “aroma” and attract pollinators.  The growth chart and more information is on display in the Conservatory.

As “Audrey” approaches full bloom, visitors to the Horridge Conservatory will have a once in a lifetime opportunity to see a remarkable and unusual sight. Our regular visiting hours w (M – F, 8 am to 4 pm ) will be extended for the 24-48 hours that the flower lasts. Check back for updates and more photos as we track this historic event!

historic nybg photo

New York Botanical Garden, 1937

Sweet Pepper Bush

clethra alnifoliaClethra alnifolia is the scientific name for the plant I learned as Sweet Pepper Bush. It’s also called Summersweet. As you can figure from the common names, it smells sweet, and the bees love it. If I remember correctly from my beekeeping days, it makes a clear thin watery honey. Another name I have heard is Indian Soap, and it’s true that if you take a few flowers and rub them between your hands with water, they will create “soap suds”.

Clethra has long-lasting spikes of white flowers in August which attract butterflies as well as bees. The leaves are a dark glossy green, turning yellow in the fall. The flower spikes are followed by spikes of little seed pods which resemble peppercorns. Clethra is a native plant here in Rhode Island. It is abundant in moist, acidic soil in partial shade such as woodland edges, stream and pond banks, swampy areas, and wet meadow edges. Although it loves moisture, it is drought tolerant once established. It spreads by suckers and makes dense thickets, but doesn’t mind being pruned. A great feature of Clethra for the garden is that it blooms in the shade.

clethra alnifolia

Courtesy of CT Botanical Society

There are a number of cultivars which have been developed for landscapes, although to me the straight species is lovely in the garden. One is ‘Ruby Spice’ , which has pink flowers instead of white, and another is ‘Hummingbird’, which tops out at about three to four feet, instead of the twelve to fifteen feet that the species can attain. Both are here in the Botanical Gardens, along with the native Clethra alnifolia.

clethra alnifolia ruby spiceWalking by the Clethra last week, I got a nose full of the lovely sweet fragrance.  It is blooming earlier than usual, like many plants this year. For me, the smell of the Sweet Pepper Bush is forever linked to the start of school. It grows at the edge of our yard and I could always smell it as the boys waited for the bus on the first day of school ( tho it’s way too early for that bittersweet “back to school” feeling!) It is remarkable how strongly certain smells are linked with certain memories. Apparently the olfactory part of the brain is closely related to the memory and emotion part of the brain. One article I read said that people born before 1930 had more memories associated with smells from nature than people born later. (

clethra alnifoliaIn addition to it’s many attributes — appealing flowers, fragrance, attraction to pollinators, shade tolerance — Clethra is also virtually disease and pest free. It is also salt tolerant, making it a good choice for coastal landscapes.