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They are the biggest flowers on earth. They are red, and they smell like rotting meat.

Ever since the first massive Rafflesia flower was discovered in the jungles of Sumatra 180 years ago, the plant has captivated and puzzled botanists.

A flower grows up to three feet in diameter and can weigh 15 pounds. Its smell attracts the carrion flies that pollinate the rare plant in its native habitat.

Close-up looking down at inner side of flower and showing white floral "windows".

Same flower as above showing studs, called processes, at the center of the flower.

“You could put your face down into the flower, but you wouldn’t want to breathe too deeply,” says Todd J. Barkman, who studies the flowers at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo.

The jungle giant looks like no other plant, and its place on the evolutionary tree has been a mystery. But using DNA analysis, Barkman and his colleagues now report that Rafflesia is related to violets, poinsettias, and passionflowers.

Rafflesia, unlike most plants, lack roots, stems and leaves.

The rare plant is native to Indonesia, the Philippines, and Malaysia. It is actually a parasite that grows like a vine on other plants, so a flower is only discovered when it blooms.

Click here to see more Rafflesia images.

— Kate Ruder

Barkman, T. et al. Mitochondrial DNA sequences reveal the photosynthetic relatives of Rafflesia, the world’s largest flower. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (Published online January 5, 2004).

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