The beautiful stench of death
It starts like a bad joke. What’s three feet wide and, according to the eminent Swedish zoologist and ethnographer Dr Eric Mjoberg, curator of the famed Sarawak Museum in Borneo 1922-1924, has ‘a penetrating smell more repulsive than any buffalo carcass in an advanced stage of decomposition’? The answer… Rafflesia Arnoldii, also known as the Corpse flower, not only the largest flower in the world, but also one of the rarest.
In recent years, thousands of people have been travelling to the rainforests of Sabah, a Malaysian state on the northern portion of the island of Borneo, in the hope of seeing a Rafflesia bloom. This is an opportunity made more and more scarce by deforestation in the region and the fact that, well, the Corpse flower is a bit of a recluse.
‘I’ve seen it growing in Borneo,’ says Rosie Atkins, curator of the Chelsea Physic Garden in London, ‘and it is the most extraordinary thing. They are so rare. And when they bloom it only lasts for a few days, after which point it just becomes a sticky putrid mess. To see one, you have to be very lucky.’ What makes the Rafflesia all the more extraordinary is that, while most flowers rely on their beauty to attract insects and creatures for pollination, this one does quite the opposite. It looks and smells like rotting meat. Literally.
‘It’s an amazing product of evolutionary history,’ Atkins says. ‘The flies that would normally feast on dead bodies are tricked into landing on and entering the flower.’ Although this may conjure up images of Audrey II, the blood-crazed, man-eating Pitcher plant from Little Shop of Horrors, those that have come across the Rafflesia have described it quite differently.
Named after Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, the leader of the expedition that first discovered it in the Indonesian rainforest in 1818, the Rafflesia is a parasite – it has no stem, leaves or true roots – and the flower, the only part of it that can actually be seen, emerges from the vines of other plants from which it steals vital nutrients and water. The flower is a vivid pinkish orange, which perhaps would be beautiful were it not so strongly linked to the smell and name of death. Its five petals unfurl to reach more than a metre in diameter and can weigh up to 11kg. These flowers can take months, sometimes years, to bloom, which they do for a week at the most. After that they wither and die, becoming a stinking black mush.
Sadly, the Rafflesia’s days seem numbered. The man-made threats to their natural environment (they can only survive in the intense environs of the Indonesian Archipelago), coupled with their reluctance to make life easier for themselves (the chances of a male and female blooming simultaneously and then being pollinated are slim indeed) means that very few exist. So, if you want to witness one of the greatest natural wonders discovered, the time to explore is now. It’s nothing to turn your nose up at.