You know which animal is the largest ever to have lived don’t you? Of course you do – it’s the blue whale. What about the tallest tree? That’s the giant sequoia. I expect you breezed through both of those questions, but the next one is a bit harder – which plant has the largest flower? Any ideas? It’s Rafflesia arnoldii, otherwise known as the corpse flower.
Why is it called the corpse flower? Well, as well as being the largest flower in the world, it’s probably the smelliest too – and not in a good way! It stinks of rotting meat… phew!
The whole point of flowers is to attract pollinators. The ones in your garden probably have bright, attractive colours and pleasant perfume-like smells. So how can the stench of putrid flesh attract anything? Well, the corpse flower isn’t pollinated by bumble bees or butterflies. The insect it wants to attract is the carrion fly.
Carrion flies, as their name suggests, like to eat dead and decomposing animals. How do they find them? They follow their noses so to speak (flies don’t actually have noses, but you get the idea). When they smell rotting flesh, carrion flies head straight for it, looking for an easy meal. To take advantage of this, the carrion flower makes a similar smell. Flies swarm to it, get coated in pollen and then fly off, following the next scent which is just as likely to be another carrion flower as it is the flies’ dinner.
Despite its size (over a metre wide) you are unlikely ever to see (or smell) a corpse flower. Firstly, it’s quite a rare plant only found in East Asia and Oceania. Secondly, the flower only blooms for one week a year – blink and you’ll miss it!
If you are lucky enough to witness the corpse flower in full bloom what will you see? Well, the flower is a dark reddish colour (as you’d expect for something pretending to be dead meat). It has five petals, each patterned with whitish marks. But the strangest thing you’ll notice is that the plant is not green – it contains no chlorophyll (which is how plants create food). Instead it is a parasite which feeds off its host – usually the vine, Tetrasigm which is related to grapes.
There’s more I could tell you, like how it’s named after the man who founded Singapore, Sir Stamford Raffles, or that it’s related to violets and poinsettias. But sadly, I’ve run out of space. So keep an eye on Nature Matters and you may learn about some more amazing plants and animals you never knew existed.