The biggest flower in the world smells like a rotting corpse, which attracts the flies that pollinate it.
Listen to find out how and why.
Music in this show:
1. Eels, “Flyswatter”
2. Bela Karoli, “Some things that fly there be”
3. Tin Hat Trio & Tom Waits, “Helium reprise”
4. Spanglish Fly, “Let my people bugalú” (Clay Holley and Jeff Dynamite remix)
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Imagine the fragrance of a dense jungle full of colorful flowers. Now imagine the smell of death. That’s the stench of the biggest flower in the world. It’s called Rafflesia, and it smells like a rotting corpse.
You know who loves Rafflesia? Bugs. Flies, most often. The kind of flies that like the smells that nauseate people. The kind of flies that eat poop and lay their eggs in rotting flesh.
Rafflesia depends on flies for pollination. Yet Rafflesia does not reward its pollinators for the favor. No, it fools flies into visiting by mimicking the stench, appearance, and even the temperature of a rotting animal carcass.
The Rafflesia flower is so big that you really could stumble on it as you hike through Sumatra or the Philippines. It’s huge–3 feet across, from petal to petal. Perhaps even big enough to resemble the body of a dead animal. Some other stinky species have hairy petals, which looks deceivingly like mold or fur. Rafflesia flowers even generate heat! Higher temperatures help to volatilize the odors so the pungent aromas can waft through the forest and attract distant flies. The flower’s heat also may feel like a steaming pile of excrement or a warm dead body.
And the flies, they come. They’re attracted to the flower that smells, looks, and feels like a good place to eat and lay their eggs. These flies are foolish, or desperate, or bound by instinct, and relegate their maggot babies to a short life of starvation–because the maggots find themselves not in the rotting meat of an animal, but instead on a flower that’s inedible. The baby flies that hatch on Rafflesia cannot survive.
But the unfortunate flies have pollinated the putrid Rafflesia flower, which now can make malodorous babies of its own.
You know what’s strange is that it seems fairly common for cadavers and cheese to share odors. In the case of cheese, people exploit pregnant flies and their maggot babies. There’s this cheese from Sardinia–casu marzu–that tastes delicious because of the flies that lay their eggs in it. The maggots eat the cheese, digest it, and poop it out, helping to create the soft, leaky delicacy. You’re advised to eat it, maggots and all, while the bugs are still alive.
So next time you’re in the jungle, and you spot the rare and beautiful (but awful-smelling) Rafflesia flower…or when you have a taste of that wriggling Italian cheese…Thank a fly. Hug a bug.
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Elsewhere in the world and on the internet:
The titan arum is another magnificently beautiful and gigantic flower that emits a characteristically fetid stench.