The week of July 21, 2003, media broadcasts including national news announced that a Titan Arum, (Amorphophallus titanum) was about to bloom at the United States Botanic Garden, Washington, DC. Throngs of the curious endured the blazing sun and long lines to get a look at this spectacular plant, native to Sumatra. As is usual for this species, the peak opening lasts for only a day or two and by Friday, deterioration was evident, with total collapse inevitable the next day. The U.S. Botanical Garden agreed that it would be in the best interest of science to preserve a specimen of the Amorphophallus before it fell into total ruin.
Why make a specimen? Scientists use dried collections to survey the tremendous diversity among and within species. By carefully comparing the critical characteristics of each specimen, plant taxonomists (scientists who give names to plants) develop a much clearer understanding of the definition of each species and their relationship to other species. The more specimens a researcher has to compare, the more complete is the assessment. Specimens may also serve as vouchers for research that is done in related fields or other applied sciences using plant material.
Specimens of this Amorphophallus titanum will reside at the United States National Herbarium. The U.S. National Herbarium dates back almost to the foundation of the Smithsonian Institution in 1846, and now contains 4.6 million specimens. The herbarium had only two collections of this species, made in Sumatra in 1935-6. There were fruiting specimens and specimens of leaves, but no male and female flowers. This would be the first flowering material for the United States National Herbarium, an important enhancement to our reference collection.