Oh, Stinky Beauty!

Nature is indeed full of amazing things!

Flowers have always been the symbol of beauty, admiration, innocence, and most of all, fragrance. Yet there exists some bizarre species of flora that’s, how should I put it, really breathtaking – take it literally.

Elephant foot yam (pungapong)

I recall my sister’s story a few years ago when she was target-shooting some sabukot in a small adjacent forest near our relatives’ house in upper Calamba (that part of Calamba which is already at the foot of Mt. Makiling). Walking back to the house in the late afternoon, she came across a strange plant (or flower) which looks like an upright banana bud or puso ng saging, as she described it. She looked closely, and as she was about to touch it, my cousin who was with her told her not to, because that plant is going to STINK big time! He said the plant is called pungapong. My sister was so fascinated by this big, stemless flower, and as she looked ahead she saw that the path was lined with more of these pungapongs!

Titan arum (Amorphophallus titanum)

Pungapong, or elephant foot yam, is one of the many plants under the Amorphophallus genus, or “arum” (from Ancient Greek amorphos, “without form, misshapen” + phallos, “penis”). Another specie called Titan arum (Amorphophallus titanum) has by far the largest inflouresence among all plants on earth. In the Guiness Book of Records, the tallest Titan arum in bloom was recorded in 2005 having the height of nine feet and six inches! (whoah, that’s truly titanic!)

Magnificent, don’t you think? But don’t be too amazed. The arum genus has this very distinct smell of rotting flesh…for the purpose of attracting its peculiar set of pollinators – carrion beetles and flesh flies!

(FYI, the picture above has NOT been modified or enhanced.)

But of all these stinky beauties, none will top the queen of all giant stinks – the Rafflesia.

Rafflesia or “corpse flower”

Having a typical full meter in diameter and budsize of a basketball, this gigantic bloom isn’t just beautiful, it’s also freaky! A website actually described it as somewhat “extraterrestrial”. Other than it’s otherworldly size and design, this plant/flower is rootless, shootless, and leafless – all because of the simple fact that it doesn’t need to photosynthesize. The Rafflesia is basically a parasite; living inside the tissue of tropical vines. Like the arums, it emits a stink, and sometimes heat, in order to attract carrion flies – its pollinators.

The Rafflesia has baffled plant scientists for nearly 200 years, not being able to track its ancestry due to it’s “weird simplicity” (Rafflesia was first discovered in the Sumatran rain forest some 180 years ago). But after a very long and almost insane analysis of this wildly oversized flower, plant scientists finally
(Image from curiousexpeditions.org)

discovered its close relationship to “poinsettias, castor oil plants, the tropical root crop cassava, and the trees that produce natural rubber” (source). They claimed that the Rafflesia flower is a product of an accelerated evolution over an estimate of 46 million years from its plant ancestors that have relatively smaller blooms (just a few millimeters in diameter). It evolved to 79 times its ancestors’ size! If humans would undergo such spurt, we’d be as tall as the Great Pyramid of Giza!

If you ask me, I’m not convinced of this evolution conclusion, since I don’t believe in evolution. I think the real story of the Rafflesia is yet to be discovered because until now, botanists aren’t convinced of this story either, and they still haven’t finalized what classification this “floral freak” belongs to. But, freak or no freak, the Rafflesia still remains the “greatest prodigy of the vegetable world” – Joseph Arnold… and for me, the most mysteriously beautiful stink of all time!

Do you have amazing nature stuff to share? Send it in! Email me at annika_rei@yahoo.com so I could share your stories here on my blog, or post a comment below.

Thanks, and remember that not everything that stinks is ugly, and not everything that’s pretty doesn’t stink! 🙂


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