Rafflesia: the Parasitic Flowers of Breath of the Wild

Let’s consider the similarities between the fairy fountains found in Nintendo’s new Legend of Zelda installment, Breath of the Wild, and the enormous blooms of our terrestrial Rafflesia genus.

Rafflesia Arnoldii hold the record for world’s largest flowers, growing regularly to a width of 3 feet and weighing up to 24 pounds. Their central chamber is large enough to put a baby in, if you aren’t too perturbed by their odd spiky structures and horrific smell.

The Fairy Fountain is obviously the largest flower in Breath of the Wild and has a central chamber similar to Rafflesia’s; an enormous fairy woman lives inside.

Rafflesia is a parasitic plant which actually has no stems, leaves, roots, or even chlorophyll! (This has made tracing its genetic relationships to other plants difficult for scientists, because most of what we know about plant relationships is based off comparing differences in their chlorophyll’s DNA.) The only visible parts of the plant are its buds and, subsequently, the flowers they open into.

Likewise, the Fairy Fountain has no leaves, stems, or other visible plant parts–it is just a bud that opens into a flower. (However, the fairy fountain bud is green. Perhaps it would have looked too much like a giant nut if it were brown like the true Rafflesia.)

The rest of Rafflesia’s structure is hidden within the vines it parasitizes. When not in bloom, it’s just a network within the vine, just as a mushroom’s principle structures lie hidden within the ground or rotting logs.

The Fairy Fountain is surrounded by mushrooms, which suggest their similarity to the fountain’s hidden structure.

Rafflesia’s enormous size is due to the fact that it is pollinated by carrion flies, who are attracted to the largest carcasses they can find. Unfortunately, this also means that Rafflesia smells like rotting meat, earning it various unsavory names like “corpse flower.” It also possesses the remarkable ability to generate heat, creating a warm, comfortable environment for flies to congregate in.

In Breath of the Wild, the Fairy Fountain is also home to flies, though these are thankfully the much less smelly, tiny winged fairy kind.

What about pollen? According to Harvard Magazine:

“The pollen is incredible,” Davis continues. In most plants, the pollen is powdery, but in Rafflesia, it is “produced as a massive quantity of viscous fluid, sort of like snot, that dries on the backs of these flies—and presumably remains viable for quite a long time,” perhaps weeks. In their pollinating efforts, the flies may travel as much as 12 to 14 miles.

I don’t have a very good sense of scale in Breath of the Wild, but 12 or 14 miles between Fairy Fountains sounds about right. By picking up fairies at one fountain and carrying them to the next, Link is helping this likely endangered Hylian species reproduce.

Likewise, the center of the enormous Fairy Fountains is filled not with powder, but some kind of… liquid.

Flower snot.

Or it might just be water:

Vines move massive quantities of water, which may be one of the physiological reasons that Rafflesia colonize them, he explains. The flowers, which to the touch are like “a Nerf football that is wet,” are mostly water themselves, and the exponential growth of the blooms in the final stages of development is made possible “primarily by pumping massive quantities of water into the flower.”

That’s a lot like what I imagine the Fairy Fountain would feel like, too.

But the really interesting thing about Rafflesia is their genes:

Given his mandate to establish a phylogeny for the order Malpighiales, Davis set out, dutifully, to duplicate the published result for Rafflesia. What he found was not just unexpected. It absolutely astounded him. Some of the genes he sequenced confirmed that Rafflesia were indeed part of Malpighiales—but other sequenced genes placed them in an entirely different order (Vitales)—with their host plants. Davis had stumbled upon a case of massive horizontal gene transfer, the exchange of genetic information between two organisms without sex. …

The work is also facilitating the identification of Rafflesia’s past hosts, since many of the transgenes Davis found came from lineages of plants other than Tetrastigma, the current host. These ancient parasite/host associations, a kind of molecular fossil record, could be used to elucidate the timing and origin of plant parasitism itself.

Davis found that the host plant contributed about 2 percent to 3 percent of Rafflesia’s expressed nuclear genome (genes in the cell nucleus), and as much as 50 percent of its mitochondrial genome (genes that govern energy production). The sheer scale of the transfer was so far-fetched, his collaborator at the time at first didn’t believe that the findings could be accurate. The paper, published in 2012, demonstrated that intimate host/parasite connections are potentially an important means by which horizontal gene transfers can occur. And it showed that the physiological invisibility of Rafflesia within the host is echoed in its genes: the host and parasite share so much biology that the boundaries between them have become blurred.

Intriguingly, some of the transferred genes swap in at precisely the same genetic location as in the parasite’s own genome. “One of the ideas that we are exploring,” says Davis, “is whether maintaining these transferred genes might provide a fitness advantage for the parasite. Might these transfers be providing a kind of genetic camouflage so that the host can’t mount an immune response to the parasite that lives within it?”

And finally, Rafflesia flowers and the Fairy Fountain are basically the same color: both are both reddish with white mottling.


5 thoughts on “Rafflesia: the Parasitic Flowers of Breath of the Wild

  1. On the subject of genetic transfer, don’t forget that Link uses these fairies (and their potions, which might be flower snot?) to restore his own health, or ‘hearts’. Put another way, he infuses flower-juice as a blood replacement.

    I have to wonder about the genetic sequencing, though. How careful were the controls? Specifically, it wouldn’t surprise me to find a bunch of the host plant’s DNA in the parasite if the parasite is borrowing the host plant’s circulatory system, but that wouldn’t mean that the parasite is genetically influenced by the host plant. What would be surprising would be to see host-plant DNA doing work inside parasite cells.


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