38. The Biggest Bromeliad Flower, PUP TALK (Saddleback Valley
Bromeliad Society), 14(2) p.4-6, February , 2007. By Gerald Krulik

Everyone seems interested in extremes. We watch the Olympics, to see the fastest and
best performances in athletics. The Guinness Book of Records is a perennial best seller.
Scientific news reports are always talking about the biggest star, the farthest galaxy, the
fastest pulsar, the biggest explosion.

Nature lovers get into it too. What is the biggest dinosaur, the biggest carnivore, the
tallest tree. Or the smallest, sometimes: the smallest bird (a hummingbird); the smallest
mammal (a shrew. Or maybe a mouse or a bat); the smallest flowering plant (Wollfia, a
type of duckweed).

Gigantism is a source of wonderment.  All gardeners know about big plants. The tallest or
biggest or oldest tree: redwood (since the Australians cut down the arguably taller royal
eucalyptus), sequoia, and bristlecone pine, all from California. The biggest nut or seed,
that of the double coconut. And what most of the popular articles talk about as “The
biggest ‘single’ flower”, the aroid Amorphallus titanum, and the Rafflesia, a parasite of
woody tropical vines.

Here is where we need a few definitions. Flowers differ in their structure, and many
people use the term ‘flower’ indiscriminately to refer to both single and to compound
flowers. A typical single flower is a rose. We also refer to Sunflowers as single flowers,
though technically they are a highly evolved mass of separate flowers that appear as a
single flower, thus the group name, Compositae.

Many of what we call flowers, are actually inflorescences. Inflorescences are compound
flowers, groups of individual flowers, arranged in one bulk structure. Most bromeliads
have inflorescences as their flower structure. The actual flowers appear singly from deep
within the inflorescence or flower spike. One big exception is Tillandsia usenoides, where
the plant itself is so reduced that it can only support a single tiny yellow-green flower.

The biggest actual single flower in the plant kingdom is that of one species of Rafflesia, a
parasite of tropical vines. The Rafflesia is truly a strange flowering plant. The only part
that can ever be seen, is the flower and fruit. The rest of the plant is hidden as a mass of
internal parasitic threads inside tropical vines of the genus Tetrastigma, of the grape

There are about 20 known species, some now extinct, though it is a bit difficult to do a
census of these rare plants. One of their threats, in addition to deforestation, is the
collection of developing buds for sale to Chinese herbalists, who use it in sympathetic
medical potions for pregnant women. The buds take up to 9 months to grow, and can get
as big as a newborn infant. Rafflesia arnoldii is the largest species. The huge red flower
can weigh 10 kg (22 lbs.) and be a meter across (3 feet). Each flower is either a male or
a female. Since these are single blooms like a rose, they are the largest actual flower.
However, they smell horrible, just like the giant aroid Amorphallus. One source quotes it
as smelling like the worst dead water buffalo, if you can reference that smell.

Rafflesia arnoldii in bloom. (1)

There are lots of ‘flowers’ in the plant kingdom that are bigger than the Rafflesia, but all
of these are the type of compound flowers called inflorescences. For example, almost
any web site will incorrectly tell you that the giant Titan Arum, Amorphallus titanum, is the
largest flower. While huge, it is actually an inflorescence despite its appearance. And it is
not the biggest inflorescence, by far.

The Amorphallus flower can grow to a meter in diameter with a three meter height (about
3 and 10 feet, respectively). This is, however, a cluster of many smaller flowers enclosed
in a large sheath, which is what people see as the flower. (2) The ‘flower’ shoots up from
a buried bulb and lasts but a few days. It actually heats up by burning stored food
reserves to more readily spread its stench around, and is pollinated by beetles, which
love the foul smell of this flower. Recent observations suggest sweat bees may be the
real pollinators. It normally is found in the rainforests of Indonesian Sumatra, and in a few
lucky botanic gardens. Below is David Attenboro inspecting the flowering plant at Kew
Gardens in London. (3)

The Amorphallus puts out only ONE leaf, as shown here coming from the pot behind the
boy. (3)

Who knows what the biggest compound flower is? Is it a palm, an aloe, a composite, a
strange tropical tree? Aloe marlothii gets a flower cluster four or more feet across.

Aloe marlothii and me, my front yard. (Photo credit: Teresita Krulik)

Some of the monocarpic composite trees, like ones found in the Juan Fernandez Islands
in South America, can have spectacular clusters, as does the Maui Silversword.
(Definition—monocarpic means that the plant lives for years, stores up food reserves,
then flowers once and dies.) Because the plant puts all of its genetic future at risk at one
time, monocarpic blooms tend to be MUCH larger structures than a typical inflorescence.
It makes sense, if you are going to die after reproducing, to try to make as many seeds
as possible. Think of the Agaves or century plants. Some of the Agaves are so huge that
only botanic gardens and large parks can show the adult plant. Many Agaves have flower
stalks in excess of 3 meters (ten feet).

This is the rare Maui Silversword, Argyroxiphium sandwicense macrocephalum, which I
shot in habitat. The flower stalk can reach five to six feet or so. This is a monocarpic
plant from the sunflower family.

The biggest inflorescence in the plant kingdom seems to be that of a palm tree. The
Talipot Palm, Corypha umbraculifera, has a huge inflorescence to go with its huge size. It
can reach 25 meters (80 feet) with a 1 meter (3 foot) diameter trunk, and palmate leaves
up to 5 meters (16 feet) across.

The Talipot palm bears the largest inflorescence of any plant. It can be 6-8 meters (19-
26 feet) long, having several million small flowers on a branched stalk at the top of the
trunk. This huge plant is monocarpic, so it dies after flowering at the age of 30 to 80
years. The plants puts all its energy into seeds, producing up to 500 kg (1100 lbs) of
seeds 3-4 cm in diameter. (4)

This photo was taken in the Singapore botanic garden. See the referenced link for more
photos. (5)