Massive and malodorous – world's biggest flower found

Paul Simons

The largest single flower ever recorded was found recently in Sumatra, Indonesia, measuring a reported 111cm (3.64ft) across. This was a specimen of Rafflesia tuan-mudae and beat the previous largest flower record of 107cm for Rafflesia arnoldii, also in Sumatra.

Rafflesia is not only a giant flower, but it has no leaves, stems or proper roots. It cannot photosynthesise and instead sucks the food and water out of a particular vine using long thin filaments that look like fungal cells. It gorges itself on the vine for a few years before bursting out into a flower bud, swells for several months before blooming into a flower that looks like a bright red bucket with big thick lobes. It gives off a whiff of rotting meat that, together with its gigantic size, helps attract pollinating flies. Rafflesia also steals some of the DNA from the vine it lives on, using it for its own genetic code for reasons that are not clear.

But this giant flower is critically endangered as its forests disappear, and it remains impossible to cultivate. If Rafflesia was a giant animal, like an elephant or blue whale, there would be international efforts to conserve it, but instead it remains largely ignored.