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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Emerging Science Note/Stinky Bloom

Air Date: Week of

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The Rafflesia arnoldii (Photo: Harry Wiriadinata and Suwito Alam)

The rafflesia is both a flower and a parasite, with a rotting-flesh odor to boot. Meghan Vigeant reports.



VIGEANT: Layers of blotchy red flesh lie on the forest floor. A putrid odor rises attracting swarms of carrion flies. The flies think it’s an animal carcass. But it’s not. It’s a flower.


VIGEANT: It’s called the rafflesia, and it’s the world’s biggest and smelliest flower. The bizarre plant, grows in Indonesia and instead of a sweet smell it mimics a dead animal to attract pollinating insects. It’s always been thought to be something of an orphan. But researchers writing in the journal, Science say they’ve finally found the rafflesia’s true family. And it turns out one of its closest relatives is the beloved poinsettia. They’re both members of the Euphorbiaceae- or surge- family, which also includes such familiar favorites as Irish bells and rubber trees.

The Rafflesia arnoldii (Photo: Harry Wiriadinata and Suwito Alam)

Nailing down the exact lineage of the rafflesia was a challenge for Harvard University plant biologist, Charles Davis and his team. Plants can usually be identified by looking for molecular markers related to photosynthesis. But the rafflesia doesn’t photosynthesize. It’s a parasite, feeding on nutrients from nearby plants. So the researchers had to delve into its genome to find clues about its family.

And it’s an ancient family. The rafflesia dates back to the days of the dinosaurs, making it one of the first flowers on earth.

VIGEANT: While the dinos might be gone, this beastly flower is still stinking it up.


VIGEANT: That’s this week’s note on emerging science, I’m Meghan Vigeant.



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