What is a mortuary lily and why is it the biggest and stinkiest flower in the world? » ABC of science

Rafflesia is the the biggest flower in the world, weighing about 7 kg, and it can reach more than one meter on the other side! This flower releases chemicalslike sulfur, which mimic the smell of rotting flesh, leading to its other popular name – corpse lily or corpse flower.

Your the adventure begins like any other hike. You are with good friends, filled with a positive attitude, and your the bags are filled with food and supplies. Your trek will take you deep into the forests of Indonesia, where you can admire all the beauty that nature has to offer. However, as you walk you begin to smell the faint aroma of what can only be described as…death.

Confused, you continue to an absolutely massive and beautiful flower you see in the distance, but the closer you get, the worse the putrid smell gets. When you can finally see the beautiful flower up close, the stench is so strong you’re forced to breathe through your shirt. To your surprise, the smell comes from INSIDE the flower. Without knowing it, you have found the rare and incredibly strange water lily!

Rafflesia arnoldii (Photo credit: Mazur Travel/Shutterstock)

This is Rafflesia arnoldii, otherwise known as corpse lily or corpse flower. It is often confused with another “corpse flower” called arum titan, which smells like a corpse, but unlike Rafflesia, arum titan is made of many small flowers.

These mysterious flowers are found in the rainforests of Southeast Asia and are one of three national flowers of Indonesia.

Why is it Rafflesia arnoldii so special?

Rafflesia is the the biggest flower in the world, weighing about 7 kg and being able to measure more than one meter in diameter. Not only does this plant have a disgusting smell, but it is also a pest that has no stem, root or leaf – all that usually defines a plant! This smelly pest also lacks chloroplasts, making it one of the few types of plants that cannot perform photosynthesis. Instead, members of Rafflesia have turned to a life of crime and steal all the nutrients they need from other plants.

They depend on plants such as Tetrastigma vines for their survival, as they cannot photosynthesize and produce their own energy. Since they only bloom for a few days (3 to 5 days), they have developed a rather strange reproductive system.

Why is it so stinky?

Unlike you and me, members of Rafflesia are very good at deceiving. They have developed a clever tool to trick insects into helping them with pollination. This flower releases chemicals like sulfur that mimic the smell of rotting flesh, hence its other popular name – corpse lily or corpse flower. This unpleasant odor tricks scavengers into thinking they are heading for large animal carcasses.
Blow Fly, Carrion Fly, Bluebottles, Greenbottles, Or Cluster Fly

Scavenger fly (Photo credit: Abel Tumik/Shutterstock)

Some scientists believe the enormous size of the flower helps trap flies for a short time, increasing the chances of pollination. The flowers also produce a lot of heat to aid in carcass mimicry, while their large size allows for heat regulation.

Another peculiarity of these flowers is that their pollen resembles snot. The pollen of Rafflesia species is a slimy slime that dries on the backs of flies, allowing insects to easily carry it long distances for pollination. This increases the chances of fertilization, as the flowers only bloom for a short time.

Do these plants steal DNA?

If you thought these plants couldn’t get any weirder, buckle up, because they also steal their hosts’ DNA!

Charles Davis is a professor at Harvard University Herbaria and wants to find out the details of Rafflesia ancestry. Davis and his colleagues found that certain species of Rafflesia have Genoa belonging to their host plants. This phenomenon is called horizontal embarrassed transfer, or the exchange of genes without the occurrence of sex. In fact, host genes make up almost 50% flower mitochondria DNA.


Hacking (Photo credit: vectorfusionart/Shutterstock)

This is particularly interesting, as few complex organisms can show such an extreme level of parasitism. We still don’t know why they are doing this. Maybe it provides a survival advantage over their competitors who can reach high enough to feel the sun.

Davis offered another hypothesis when talking about Rafflesia for Harvard Review. He points out that the stolen genes could help the corpse lily hide from its victims’ immune systems.

These plants also get rid of genes they don’t need. Molina and his colleagues investigated other species of Rafflesia in their 2014 study published in Molecular Biology and Evolution. They stated that Rafflesia lagascae has lost parts of its chloroplast genome. Davis confirmed this finding in another independent study published in Current Biology. It is likely that Rafflesia lost these genes due to his life of crime and no longer uses chloroplasts to photosynthesis and energy production because it simply does not need it.

One last word

The Corpse Lily is a wonderfully disgusting plant that continues to fascinate scientists with its ability to fly and sustain itself for years. Unfortunately, their numbers are dwindling and efforts must be made to conserve them. Despite being a really weird pest and plant, Rafflesia can still teach us much more about genomics and help us unlock the secrets of our own DNA!

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