The Corpse Flower – the largest flower in the world!
Imagine your girlfriend asking you for flowers. But, roses are too mainstream. Well why not get her the biggest flower in the world! Let’s just hope she doesn’t mind the smell..
What is Rafflesia?
Rafflesia is a genus of plants which are found in the rainforests of South East Asia, mostly in Borneo. These plants are parasites. They attach to a host and absorb nutrients and water. Hosts are usually certain types of vines.
The plant consists of a single flower. It has no leaves, stems or “real roots”. It is the largest flower in the world and can grow larger than 1 metre in diameter – the current record is 107cm. The largest species of rafflesia, the Rafflesia arnoldii, can weigh up to 10kg.
The main part of the plant lives inside their hosts while the only part you can see is the five-petaled “flower”. The flower is reddish-brown in colour with blister-like white spots. In the middle of the flower, there is a deep “well” with vertical spikes pointing up. The sexual organs of these plants lie deep in the well. A rafflesia plant can only either have male or female sexual organs and rely on insects to pollinate them.
Rafflesias are notoriously known as the Corpse Flower because they smell horrible. If you put your nose into the “well” (which is not advisable), it smells like rotting flesh. Volatile organic compounds such sulphur are released by the flower to mimic this foul smell. The smell attracts flies to help pollinate these flowers.
Life cycle & reproduction
Mature rafflesia plants only flower for 3-5 days. Within this period, flies that are attracted to these flowers will unknowingly transfer pollen from a male to a female plant. After fertilization, the females make fruits. The fruits get eaten by small animals or insects and seeds get dispersed around the rainforest. If a seed lands on a suitable vine, a bud forms and matures over a year before the plant flowers again.
Why are Rafflesias endangered? – Threats/Uses
Everything about the rafflesia’s life cycle makes them very rare. They only flower for a short period, males and females have to flower at the same time and be close enough to be pollinated. When their seeds get dispersed, they have to attach to a very particular species of vines to grow and survive. Even if they do germinate and become buds, some of them will get trampled on and die.
Rafflesia flowers are also collected illegally for various purposes. Rafflesias have been used as traditional medicine to treat internal injuries and also infertility (although their benefits have not been scientifically proven). Raffelsias have been preserved and sold illegally at a high price as ornaments – maybe they really ARE given to girls since they’re the biggest flowers in the world!
However, all is not doom, Gloom or Vileplume!
The best way to keep something going is to keep it natural. Conservation programs are being carried out to ensure that rafflesia plants do not become extinct. Rainforests in Sumatra and Borneo are being protected to so that rafflesias will have a natural environment to grow in.
In not so natural ways, scientists are also conducting artificial conservation methods through grafting and regenerative experiments although there are no evidence of their labs smelling horrible.