Collected on this day...
a weekly blog featuring specimens in the Carnegie Museum's herbarium.
each specimen has an important scientific and cultural story to tell.
each specimen has an important scientific and cultural story to tell.
How do you fit the world’s largest flowering structure on an herbarium sheet? You don’t have to, but instead press and dry it in parts, and place them in a “palm” folder. This specimen of titan arum (Amorphophallus titanum) was collected not in the rainforest in its native Indonesia but rather, right here in Pittsburgh! The specimen was collected by Bonnie Isaac (collection manager here at the museum) and Ellen York at the University of Pittsburgh in a greenhouse.
The titan arum is known for its massive inflorescence (cluster of flowers) that can reach 10 feet tall (!) and the putrid scent of its flowers, which smells of rotting meat to attract the beetles and flies that pollinate it. The inflorescence consists of a column of flowers (spadix) surrounded by a sheath (spathe) – a structure found in all members of the Arum family (Araceae), which includes familiar species like the houseplants called “peace lilies,” philodendrons, jack-in-the-pulpit, and skunk cabbage.
This plant has a massive belowground storage structure (corm) to support the energy requirements of the inflorescence and produce a large leaf which is quite large and can be confused as a tree.
It is said that naturalist David Attenborough, of nature documentary fame, is said to have started calling this plant the “titan arum,” as the use of Amorphophallus was inappropriate to repeatedly say on TV.
Does this heart-shaped leaf look familiar? 22 years ago, this specimen of heartleaf philodendron (Philodendron hederaceum) was collected on Valentine’s Day in Peru. Almost certainly you have seen this species, but probably not in the wild. Heart leaf philodendron is a very popular houseplant. This huge leaf on this specimen may look a bit different than those in your home, as the species rarely reaches maturity as a houseplant. Philodendrons have both juvenile and adult forms of their leaves, changing their form and size as they climb up a tree.
The name Philodendron comes from the Greek philo meaning “love” and dendron meaning “tree.” The name doesn’t refer to the heart shaped leaves, but rather to its growth habit as a vine that climbs trees. It is native to tropical Mexico, the Caribbean, and regions in South America.
Happy Valentine’s Day from this loving plant!
Philodendron thriving in its anthropogenic habitat in my kitchen. Philodendrons are incredibly popular as indoor plants, being easy to take care of and incredibly tolerant of low light conditions in your house. Philodendrons are toxic to pets. However, the NASA Clean Air Study has found philodendrons to improve indoor air quality.
Heartleaf philodendron at Phipps Conservatory, Pittsburgh, PA. Feb 3, 2018.
Signs of spring...in January?! You might be surprised that skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) is among the earliest blooming wildflowers in western Pennsylvania. Collected on January 25, 1950, this specimen was found by “Mr. Harrison” near Allison Park, PA. Unlike most herbarium specimens, which are pressed and mounted to paper, this specimen is a dried three-dimensional flower. Like other members of the Arum family (Araceae; which includes the common houseplants called “peace lilies”), their flowering structures consist of a sheath (“spathe”) with a spike of small flowers inside (the “spadix”).
Skunk cabbage grows in wet forested areas across the Eastern US. Their flowers poke through the ground in February and March (or as early as December/January). Their large “cabbage-like” leaves don’t emerge until later in the spring. Amazingly, its flowers produce heat that capable of melting the snow around it. The flowers smell like rotting meat, which attract the flies that pollinate it, and as the name suggests, the leaves smell like skunk when crushed.
Keep a look out for these flowers along wet woods in our area!
More pictures of this uniquely awesome plant at Trillium Trail (Fox Chapel, PA) can be found here: https://www.masonheberling.com/skunk-cabbage.html
Skunk cabbage blooms poking through the leaves and snow in the winter.
Skunk cabbage leaves in the spring.
Not deer poop! In the fall, skunk cabbage seeds can be found along the forest floor.
Collected on May 19, 2006, this specimen was found by Loree Speedy in a stream valley near the Mill Run Reservoir in Fayette County, PA. This charismatic species (Arisaema triphyllum) is known as “Jack-in-the-Pulpit” and native to forests of the Eastern US. Its common name comes from its flowering structure – a distinctive hooded structure (spathe) that looks like a pulpit and the flowers (spadix) that resembles “Jack,” the minister standing within. This flower structure is shared among members of the arum family (Araceae; members often called “aroids”), which includes the popular houseplants known as “peace lilies.”
The natural history of Jack-in-the-pulpit is fascinating. For starters, individual plants can be male or female and the gender can switch from year to year! This species has intrigued botanists for decades and used as a study system to understand the ecology and evolution of plant sex expression. Larger plants tend to have female flowers, but the exact size is dependent on environmental conditions and genetics of a given population.
Jack-in-the-pulpit has calcium oxalate in its leaves that can irritate skin and is poisonous to ingest. It is generally avoided by deer. However, recent research from the lab of Susan Kalisz (Research Associate at the museum) has shown that deer overabundance negatively affects the growth of this species. While it is rarely eaten by deer, they affect other environmental conditions, such as light levels and soil conditions.
With over 870 specimens, this species is among the best replicated in the CM herbarium. However, there is some debate whether this species should be treated as multiple species or not.
Collected on April 12, 1919, this specimen was found by Otto Jennings “North of Saunders” in Allegheny County, PA. Jennings was an extremely influential botanist, focusing on nearly all aspects of plants in our region. He made many contributions throughout his career, serving as the Curator of Botany, Director of Education, and eventually Director of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. He also was Professor of Head of the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Pittsburgh, having advised many students. His legacy remains to this day for his influence on the museum, botany, conservation, and environmental education.
Skunk cabbage grows in wet forested areas across the Eastern US. Although easily overlooked, it is one of the earliest plants to flower in our region. Fun fact: its flowers produce heat that melt the snow around it. The flowers smell like rotting meat, which attract the flies that pollinate it, and as the name suggests, the leaves smell like skunk when crushed.