A few years ago while teaching the topic on adaptation, I came across a unique flower that uses not butterflies, moths, birds or bees as its pollinating agents but rather the disgusting carrion flies. Not only that, I learnt that this flower is the world’s largest, the heaviest, the rarest and one of the most stinkiest flowers in the world.
This unique plant has no leaves, roots nor stem and is actually a parasite that attaches itself to a rarer host plant called Tetrastigma vine. Why it is still called a plant bewilders me more because without leaves, it doesn’t have chlorophyll, and hence, cannot photosynthesize.
In 1818, Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, a British statesman and governor and the founder of Singapore, found this unique flower while leading an expedition in the Indonesian rainforest in Bengkulu, together with an Indonesian guide and his companion, surgeon-naturalist Dr. Joseph Arnold. It was later named after him, the Rafflesia arnoldii. “It is perhaps the largest and most magnificent flower in the world” was how Sir Stamford Raffles described his discovery.
Rafflesia was first discovered by Louis Deschamps in Java between 1791 and 1794, but because his notes and illustrations were seized by the British in 1803, they were only available to western science after 1861.
The flower is basically a big pot in the center, flanked by five, 1-inch thick lobes of shining, bright red and cream-spotted petals. There are about 28 species of this flower. So far, it is the biggest flower with an all-time record-breaking bloom of 106.7 centimetres (3 ft 6 in) diameter and 11 kilograms (24 lb) weight. Even the flowers of its smallest species has 12 cm diameter flowers.
The uniqueness of this flower does not end there. Not only does it look like rotting flesh, it smells like one too, hence its local names which translate to ‘corpse flower’ or ‘bunga bangkai’ as the Indonesians call it. Its foul and pungent aroma attracts insects such as carion flies to help in pollination.
It’s good to know that despite its pungent odor and not so attractive petals, Rafflesia is the official state flower of Indonesia known as Puspa langka (Rare flower) or Padma Raksasa (Giant flower), the Sabah state in Malaysia and the Surat Thani Province of Thailand.
Rafflesia is also an endangered or threatened genus. The constant logging and destruction of the rainforests are threatening the existence of this rare and beautiful flower (despite its foul aroma).
“The plant is now hanging on to a precarious existence in a few pockets of Sumatra, Borneo, Thailand and the Philippines, struggling to survive against marauding humans and its own infernal biology.” (http://www.theflowerexpert.com/content/aboutflowers/largest-flower)