The plant with the largest individual flower is named Rafflesia arnoldii, but it also has several common names, including carrion flower, corpse lily, corpse flower, and meat flower. And it stands out with everything, first of all, with size, secondly, with the smell (very much unpleasant). Yeah, an unusual flower is unusual in everything: in this article, we will focus on all the weirdness around the corpse lily.
How does it look?
This plant will challenge all your ideas of what a flower is because something around 3 ft across with a weight of almost 15 pounds isn't what you expect from a flower. Its coloring is also extravagant, mostly red or brown with a purple tint and slightly lighter spots. This plant doesn't have any leaves, roots, or stems but has a berry-like fruit with thousands of seeds inside. As you might already guess, rafflesia is a parasitic plant – it depends on vines. Itt may seem easy to spot this flower in the wild with such characteristics, but no. Before its blooming season, this plant is undetectable.
What about its smell?
We have mentioned that rafflesia's smell is peculiar. Common names like the corpse flower or meat flower hint that its odor is similar to the smell of rotten flesh. Even chemical profiles can prove it: there is a notable match to rotting meat.
Such a repulsive odor is needed to attract pollinators. Since bees or butterflies won't be comfortable around this species, it needs something different - flies, such as Calliphora vicina or Lucilia caesar (commonly known as browfly). Another peculiar thing about the corpse flower is that it generates heat (it's rare among plants). It helps spread the smell that attracts flies.
Who first discovered the corpse flower?
Rafflesia arnoldii is named after Stamford Roffles and Joseph Arnold. Both scientists were members of the British expedition in Sumatra, and in 1818 they allegedly discovered this flower. But were they the first Europeans who saw and described it? No. In 1797, French botanist Louis Auguste Deschamps found the corpse flower and studied it during an expedition on Java. Unfortunately for Deschamps, all his papers were confiscated by the British as there was a war between the two countries. And only in 1954, his notes were rediscovered. So because of this historical injustice, he wasn't properly credited for his achievement.
Extravagant, yet shy and slow
The growing period of rafflesia is prolonged: it needs 18 months only to adapt to the vine and become a small bud. Then, this bud spends nine months to mature and only after that finally starts to transform into a flower. Unlike the growth period, blooming is relatively short: the flower is open only for 5-7 days. During this period, rafflesia is busy because it tries to attract carrion-feeding flies. But once it blooms, then it starts to rot very soon.
When precisely it starts to bloom? No one knows for sure: some say that after heavy rainfalls, others that in July. And it's not that easy to find the corpse flower during its thriving period because it likes dark, humid places in rainforests. So despite being so unique, this flower grows in the areas that help it avoid extra attention.
In Indonesian, this flower is called 'puspa langka,' which means 'rare flower.’ This name is more flattering than, let's say, the corpse flower. Indonesians are pretty fond of rafflesia; that's why they consider it their national flower. Same with Malaysians, they adore this bloom. The rafflesia appears on ringgits (Malaysian currency), stamps, and its picture decorates the rice bags. In Thailand, rafflesia is a delicacy! And it's not the only place where it's consumed. The indigenous people of northern Borneo believe that rafflesia has some medical qualities and can help women after giving birth.
Still, there are a lot of unresolved mysteries that surround this plant. First of all, scientists aren't sure how the corpse flower infects its host. There are some theories that ants are somehow involved. Probably, they carry rafflesia's seeds from place to place. But the process isn't correctly described yet.
Secondly, despite attempts, the corpse flower has never been well cultivated. This is bad news because rafflesia is actually in danger of extinction. And thirdly, even its classification is debatable. Can we call it a flower or a parasite? Scientists are still confused when it comes to the corpse flower.
Rafflesia isn’t only the largest flower but also one of the most enigmatic. And if you are interested in unusual plants, check our article about the world’s most painful plant!