When the English naturalist Joseph Arnold smelt rotting flesh during an 1821 expedition to the steamy jungles of Sumatra, he must have feared the worst. Back then, this was cannibal country. Blood-thirsty local tribes were known to capture their most hated enemies, tie them to a stake, and start feasting on their roasted body parts. So imagine his surprise when he learnt that the stench was coming not from a dead explorer, but a plant that produces the world’s biggest flower. Rafflesia arnoldii (named after Arnold and Sir Stamford Raffles, who led the expedition) can produce blooms up to one metre across – and they carry the stink of death.
No surprise then, that Arnold’s find has been nicknamed the “corpse flower” by those who’ve caught a whiff of it. There aren’t many who can say they have, though – this is one of Southeast Asia’s most endangered species. And despite each flower weighing in at around 11kg, they’re notoriously difficult to come across. They’re parasitic, for one thing, and can only take root beneath the dark green tendrils of undisturbed grape vines. And even when a plant does begin to thrive, its meaty-red flower lasts just days. If you want to see one in bloom, you’ll have to learn to follow your nose.
But why would a plant evolve to smell like rotting meat? Well here in Sumatra, where the race for survival is tough, it pays to be ingenious. Flies are lured into the corpse flower’s spongy interior by the promise of somewhere to lay their eggs, only to find they’ve been deceived.
When they eventually get bored, they’ll take off in search of somewhere better. And maybe, just maybe, they’ll drop pollen from one plant onto another. When you consider how unlikely this is to happen, you’ll realize that your chances of seeing the corpse flower are pretty slim. But what better excuse to go sniffing around one of the last great rainforests?