The Bizarre, Putrid Beauty of the Corpse Flower

Scientists struggle to understand the parasitic behavior of one of the world's largest and smelliest flowers before it disappears.

On a table in Harvard University’s herbarium, six slimy-looking brownish lobes, each roughly the size of your palm, float in a tub of ethanol solution. They’ve been sliced in half and their flat sides face the ceiling, revealing strange patterns of grooves, bumps and tentacle-like projections. If you had to guess, you might say
they were sections of something that grew in the deep ocean.

In fact, they’re pickled flower buds. And though their drab hues and soggy miens suggest otherwise, they’d have bloomed, if left in their rainforest homes, into some of nature’s largest, weirdest and worst-smelling flowers. The plants, which graduate student Lachezar Nikolov collected in the jungles of Malaysia and Thailand, belong to the genus Rafflesia. Their bright red and yellow flowers can grow up to 3 feet in diameter and weigh more than 15 pounds. But unlike most plants, Rafflesia possess no leaves, roots or stems. They don’t even practice photosynthesis, the basic method of energy-making common to nearly all plants. Instead they bloom from within another species, stealing nutrients from massive vines that are members of the grapevine family. Rafflesia are enormous parasites.

Add in the fact that they emanate the smell of rotting flesh, and it’s no wonder Rafflesia, known as corpse flowers, have captivated naturalists for more than two centuries. Yet these rare organisms are only just beginning to reveal their secrets. Because Rafflesia are so incredibly unusual, scientists have only recently figured out where they came from — which ancestral plants ultimately morphed into these biological curiosities. “There are so many fundamental questions,” says Nikolov.

But in the lab of Nikolov’s adviser, Charles Davis, provocative facts about Rafflesia evolution are starting to pile up, and they could prove useful in a range of fields, from the biology of scent to parasitology.