Corpse Flower: The Discovery of Rafflesia

Rafflesia is a parasitic flowering plant found in Southeast Asia. It is known as the corpse flower because it looks and smells like raw meat or rotting flesh.

The odor is used to attract flies and other insects, which carry pollen between the flowers. There are at least 24 species of the flower, but Rafflesia Arnoldi is perhaps the most impressive, often measuring over 40 in (100 cm) in diameter, weighing 10 kilograms, and holding the title of the world’s largest individual flower!

The Discovery of the Corpse Flower

Rafflesia has been long-known to the populations of Southeast Asia. However, the western world had to wait until the turn of the 19th century to discover the flower for themselves. In 1797, French physician and naturalist Louis Auguste Deschamps became the first westerner to see the flower. Unfortunately, he did not receive credit for the discovery. One his return trip to France the British seized his ship and confiscated his specimens and field notes.

The British were then in the fortunate position of knowing in advance what they might discover. Still, it took them nearly twenty years to chance upon another specimen. In 1818, a flower was found by either a Malay servant or an Indonesian guide (sources vary) working for British physician and naturalist Joseph Arnold, and the flower was named after the leader of the expedition, Sir Stamford Raffles. An American physician and naturalist named Thomas Horsfield who worked for Raffles discovered a small specimen of Rafflesia sometime between 1812-1819.

If you’re counting that is 3 out of 3 discoveries by Physician/Naturalists. It does seem likely that being both a physician and naturalist increases your odds of finding a Rafflesia! 😂 If you aren’t a Physician-Naturalist you may still discover beautiful background-free original illustrations of Rafflesia here on TofuJoe.

image of rafflesia arnoldi corpse flower
Rafflesia Arnoldi
image of rafflesia patma corpse flower
Rafflesia Patma

If you’re interested in learning more about Deschamps’s discovery, the Bulletin of the British Museum (1953-59) contains an analysis of Deschamp’s notes. More information about Arnold’s discovery of Rafflesia may be found in this 5-page letter from Sir Stanford Raffles. It was taken from An account of a new genus of plants, named Rafflesia (1821).

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