Titan Arum Adventure

By Steven Malehorn

I was traveling through a small village in central Illinois and paused to chat with a man who had just returned from the depths of its tropical forest. He was a tall, handsome man with chiseled features and a muscular physique who had explored the forest daily for a dozen years.

He told me of a titan arum that might be ready to flower deep in the forest.  His comment kindled my interest.  For if it was indeed going to flower, I might bear witness to the rare event.  He could not stay to guide me and provided rough directions.  I quickly found a scrap of paper and drew a map, lest I forget what he just told me.  The map had a simple pencil-thin line with an “X” to mark the spot and with this shred of evidence I began my quest.

The mountainous terrain that rose before me was covered by thick, nearly impenetrable jungle forest.  Its rivers frequently flowed like fire hoses that flooded deep ravines.  I had to suspend my quest almost daily and wait for these flooding waters to subside before continuing on.   

I was challenged by row after row of towering mountain ranges and stared into chasms so deep they could instantly swallow an unwary traveler without leaving a trace.  The chasm floors were polished to bedrock by torrents of rushing water and the walls were so steep… it was as though the earth had been torn asunder to reveal its inner soul.

I finally stumbled upon a titan arum in bud after months of searching.  But was it going to set flower or leaf?  I could not tell.  Only time could answer that question, so I made camp for the long wait. My efforts would be richly rewarded if it was going to flower, but all my work was in vain if it was a leaf.

I set up camp beneath the spreading canopy of a towering yucca in an ancient shelter.  There was so little substance to the crumbling cabin that I could see the forest through its walls.  Its roof was but a tenuous web of moldering boards.  The single room was dappled by sunlight and trees grew from the building’s dirt floor.

A vast field of sugar cane stood before my camp, abandoned long ago as the fragile shelter could attest.  To my right there was a shallow swamp with towering plants that would lean over my shoulder with the slightest breeze as if curious to see what I was doing. Behind me rose a grove of bamboo that nearly touching the sky.

I felt a deep need to share my rare and wonderful find with the world and thought to spread the news by wire.  It would not be an easy task to send word back to civilization because my camp was deep in the farthest reaches of the equatorial tropics. But I felt up to the challenge.

I pulled my wire from the nearest civilized port through the tropical forest.  I clambered over carpets of ferns and passed near walls of orchids that silently watched as I labored past sentries of cycads guarding the path.  I hacked my way through dense undergrowth day by day.  The heat and humidity were nearly unbearable.  Some days I made good progress and other days I ended up two steps back.  It was difficult, sweaty work.  But I knew the world was depending on me to bring word of a rare and beautiful titan arum as it bloomed in the hot, steaming Illinois jungle.

I made many trips to camp, dragging equipment along my well-trod path until everything was in place.  A few times I engaged the local natives for their expertise in certain matters.  Finally, my camp was in order and the wire came to life with my words.

The elements frequently tested the mettle of my speedy messenger as it ran through the forest.  An errant deer or fallen limb from a decaying giant occasionally injured my associate and the living wire would go silent… the fragile line resting broken on the forest floor, unable to speak until I nursed it back to health and sent it on its way again.

Local inhabitants soon followed my trail, curious about the tiny wire and what they might find at its end.  They found me sitting there alone in the forest, hovering like a parent over a quiet child.

Weather was the definition of tropical.  By day the blazing sun beat down on my sunburned forehead and thunderstorms frequently drenched the afternoons.  Although the storms briefly cooled the air, their moisture added to the stickiness and discomfort I felt.

The rain easily penetrated my timeworn shelter, so I raised an umbrella inside to protect my tools.  However, small drops of moisture found me as I sat there working.  Tap…tap…tap…  The cadence of falling raindrops tapping on my head measured each storm’s passage as it slowly marched on by.  Even as the rain drops tapped my head, my fingers were tapping out the code. My message was travelling around the globe.

                   - .. - .- -.  --. .-. --- .-- .. -. --.

Every day I watched the bud grow and develop… and measuring it, recorded what I found.  For more than a week I kept my vigil, occasionally caressing the bud gently to see if touch would reveal something that sight and blind measurement could not. Then one morning those protective green robes suddenly parted to reveal a golden face.  That beautiful young face looked up and smiled at me!  The titan was going to flower! I could hardly contain my excitement and danced a little jig!

I continued to watch and wait as long days and nights blended together. I marveled at how fast it grew; four, five, six inches at a time until it was taller than me. Then it started to open and I sent the message to those who waited anxiously in distant lands to hear the words.

                   -... .-.. --- --- -- .. -. --. -. --- .--  

Almost imperceptibly at first, but then with gathering speed it opened further as the day and evening progressed.  The wonderful bouquet drew visitors from near and far.  I was surrounded by a thousand spirits and watched as the initially shy young flower slowly opened up and gracefully greeted our ethereal guests. 

The Velvet Queen had returned!

As the evening turned to night, the throng of spirits began to thin as each wandered off to other adventures.  Then the deep jungle night settled in and I found myself alone.  The Velvet Queen was gone.  A heavy sadness weighed my heart.  For in the excitement of greeting our visitors, I found no opportunity to speak with her.

I labored alone into the night, my instruments faintly lit by the flickering flame of my lantern.  Then I felt a tender touch on my shoulder and turned around to see the Velvet Queen.  She was standing there smiling with a twinkle in her eye, her warm face aglow with the gentle light from my camp. She was taller and even more beautiful than when we first met and once again her subtle perfume entranced me.

We were alone together in the depths of the darkened forest and embraced for what I wished would be an eternity.  But we both knew she must travel with the moonlight.  Neither of us spoke, for words were unnecessary as our spirits entwined.  She gave me the briefest kiss on my cheek and I continued to watch her lovely face as she slowly moved away.  Her hand drifted down my arm until only our fingers touched… and then she quietly melted into the forest mist... and was gone.   

I found myself alone again as the eastern horizon slowly began to brighten.  A light rain descended in the forest and my falling tears joined company with their brothers as they fell.