It looks like an extra-terrestrial being that fell to Earth, but this is the flower of Hydnora africana, which lives in the deserts of Southern Africa. The plant is unusual in having no roots, leaves or chlorophyll and, apart from its flower, living entirely underground.

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It behaves like a subterranean vampire, using suckers on its stem to draw out juices from the roots of its prey, the shrubby Euphorbia mauritanica. The only sign of the plant above ground is when the flowerbud bursts up, swells and opens its shocking pink bloom. Under good conditions it takes one year for the bloom to develop from a bud into a mature flower. It then gives off a powerful scent of rotting meat, which is often how people locate it.

The flower’s stench and bright pink colour are an irresistible draw for carrion flies and dung beetles, which are probably fooled into thinking it’s an animal carcass. As the insects enter the floral chamber, the hairy fringes around its entrance bend inwards to prevent them from escaping. The interior of the flower is smooth and slippery with wax, and insects such as small beetles slip and slide around, trapped inside. Only once the insects have pollinated the plant does its entrance open, allowing the captives to flee.

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Main image: Hydnora africana © Lytton John Musselman, CC BY-SA 3.0 <http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/>, via Wikimedia Commons

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