Link #59: The Rafflesia Flower Smells like a Rotting Corpse!


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Link #59: The Rafflesia Flower Smells like a Rotting Corpse!

Rafflesia flower approx 80cm across
A full-bloom Rafflesia flower approx 80cm across. Image credit: Steve Cornish cc2.0

In the last post, you learned how flowers are affected by listening to music. While some types of music will help flowers and plants grow quicker and healthier, others may stunt their growth. For instance, calm and soothing music styles like western and Indian classical are known to help growth while negative music like rock is known to stunt it.

However, this makes us wonder what will happen if we play rock music to the biggest flower in the world – Rafflesia. Why do we wonder about this? Well, we wonder about this because this flower smells like a rotting animal and there has always been a special connection between rock and themes of death and destruction.

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How Big Is the Rafflesia Flower?

Rafflesia 1 metre wide
Rafflesia, Borneo 1 metre wide. Image credit: Rod Waddington cc2.0

There is a reason why most experts think that the Rafflesia is the biggest flower in the world. In full bloom, the Rafflesia flower can grow to be as large as 3 feet in width. Moreover, the weight of the Rafflesia flower can go up to 7 kg.

While the Rafflesia flower is quite large and heavy, it isn’t very common and a blooming Rafflesia flower is often treated as a tourism attraction by locals in South East Asia.

The reason the Rafflesia flower is so rare is that only about 10 to 20 percent of these flowers grow to full bloom with most dying along the way. Once in full bloom, the Rafflesia flower only stays that way for a period of five days to a week.

Effectively, because the chances of male and female flowers blooming together in close proximity are low, chances of fertilisation are low too.

Why Does Rafflesia Smell Like a Rotting Animal?

Three Rafflesia pricei growing in close proximity near Mount Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia cc2.0

Rafflesia is easily one of the most unique plants in the world. It is completely parasitic in nature which is why it doesn’t have any chlorophyll – the substance that is typical in plants.

Its parasitic nature also means that most of the Rafflesia plant is not visible externally. The plant lives mostly inside other plants’ tissues. In fact, the Rafflesia flower is the only thing visible of the whole plant.

In addition to this, the Rafflesia flowers have their distinct rotting carcass smell. The reason they smell like this is that they rely on carrion flies and carrion insects for fertilisation. Their unique smell allows them to attract carrion flies and insects.

Carrion insects - Decomposition
Carrion insects – Blowflies and flies on fresh corpse of South African Porcupine (Hystrix africaeaustralis), Honeydew, Gauteng. Image credit: Paul venter cc3.0

When a carrion fly or insect lands on the male Rafflesia flower, some pollen is deposited on its back. The fly or insect then has to find a female Rafflesia flower for pollination to occur. Chances of pollination are small because of the small number and lifespan of the flowers.

If pollination does happen and the female Rafflesia flower is fertilised then it goes on to produce fruit. The fruit produced is round and about six inches in width. The fruit contains multiple seeds which are dispersed by the animals that eat the flower.

The complex reproductive cycle of the Rafflesia plant is the reason why it isn’t very common. This is also possibly why Indonesia chose this plant to be its official state flower!

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