In the month of Shevat, in honor of Tu BiShevat-the New Year for Trees- this column is devoted to the wonders of plant life. We already told you about the giants among trees, and the world's largest tree. So let us tell you here about the world's largest flower-a flower the size of a washtub! Sounds incredible? But incredible things do exist in this incredibly wonderful world which G‑d created.

Before telling you about this gigantic flower, we must tell you a little bit about flowers in general, and about the connection between flowers and trees.

Usually, when speaking of flowers, city-dwellers immediately think of such pretty things as roses, and carnations, and gladiolas, and orchids, or similar popular (and expensive) flowers. Country folks are perhaps more likely to think of daisies, pansies and forget-me-nots. Actually, the blossoms of all trees and plants are also flowers, and flowers are among the most beautiful things in the world.

From the most ancient times people knew that all fruit trees, nut trees, berry shrubs, and many vegetables burst into blossoms in the spring or early summer. After the blossoms faded and died, fruits and nuts and berries appeared in their place, at first tiny, but gradually growing to full size and ripeness. People knew therefore that all fruits and nuts and certain vegetables were the products of flowers, though they did not know how, and why, there were not always as many fruits as there had been blossoms.

But when people saw the pretty flowers in the fields, woodlands, meadows and mountain slopes, they could think of no reason for their existence except that G‑d created them for man's pleasure-to feast their eyes on their beauty: their many colors, their extraordinary shapes and forms, and-not least-to enjoy their exquisite fragrance. Little did people know that the colors, shapes, and fragrances were vitally important also to the flowers themselves.

It was comparatively late-as late is the end of the seventeenth century- that botanists (scientists who study plants and plant life) discovered that plants reproduce themselves much in the same) way as living creatures. They realized then that some flowers were males and some were females, producing tiny cells, called "pollen" and "ovules," and the pollen (a Latin word meaning fine dust) had to fall on the ovules (the part of a plant which develops into seeds) in order to produce seeds or seed-bearing fruits. This process is called "pollination."

It is interesting to note that what botanists discovered a little over 250 years ago was already known to our Sages of the Talmud more than a thousand years earlier, and to our Sages of the Mishnah and Midrash still earlier, for they speak of male and female trees, especially the date-palm.

As for the importance of colors, shapes and odors to the flowers themselves, it took yet another hundred years before botanists realized this. They finally realized that a wonderful partnership existed between flowers and certain birds, bees, butterflies, moths and insects, for whom the flowers provide their food in the form of a sweet-smelling liquid, called "nectar." In return for this food, these winged messengers carry the pollen to other flowers on the same plant, or to other plants, Without their help many plants could not produce seeds or fruits. Now the mystery was solved: Certain flying creatures are attracted by certain colors and odors. Many flowers, especially those found in tropical countries, have long flower tubes and are bright red or orange in color. These attract the hummingbirds and long-tongued moths. Other flowers, like mints and forget-me-nots have different shades of purple or blue, which are especially attractive to certain types of bumblebees.

Some flowers open only at night, or become fragrant only at night, because their partnership is with night-f1ying insects. Such flowers are usually white or pale in color, in order to be seen by the night-insects in the dark.

Some flowers have a disagreeable odor to attract insects that feed on decaying matter!

The importance of shape and form is best illustrated by the example of the orchid family. Some species, such as the lady's slipper, are so formed that a heavy insect must force its way into the top of the slipper to obtain the nectar. But to get out again it must leave through a passage underneath, so small that the pollen clings to its body.

Strange and wonderful and many are the methods of pollination among the different kinds of flowers. But all point to the wonderful design and plan, which G‑d implanted in Nature; all proclaim the infinite wisdom of the Creator.

Not all flowers depend on winged messengers for pollination. Some depend on the wind to carry the pollen; water flowers are helped by the water and waves. Since wind and water have no stomachs, no eyes, and no sense of smell, such flowers as depend on them do not require fragrance or nectar, nor particularly bright colors. G‑d does not waste anything, and so these flowers are comparatively colorless and odorless-once again showing G‑d's careful management of Nature's affairs.

Now it is time to return to our Rafflesia.

Where would you expect to find a flower the size of a washtub? In the same places where you would find giant 5piders and bats and elephants-in the dense jungles, Nature's own hot-houses. The Rafflesia is a gigantic flower, without leaves or stems. It is a parasite growing upon the exposed roots of a kind of vine. Its own roots are buried entirely within the tissues of the plant on which it grows, so that all that is visible of the Rafflesia is its enormous cabbage-like bud and, later, its gigantic blossom, which may easily exceed three feet in width.

When fully open, its thick, fleshy, curled-back petals-five in number-lie flat upon the ground. In their midst lies the shallow, bowl-shaped bloom, containing the pollen sacs. This bowl is said to be capable of containing two gallons of water. The weight of the whole blossom may reach fifteen pounds.

This monstrous blossom is colored red like blood, while at the same time it exhales a most disagreeable odor, like the stench of carrion. It consequently attracts a large number of flies and insects, who obligingly carry the pollen from one blossom to another. But the ripened seeds have yet to be sown, and not just anywhere in the soil, but in the tissue of one particular vine. How is this done? The Creator has provided a way, you may be sure. He made the seeds very sticky, and they stick to the feet of elephants, rhinoceroes and other wild animals that roam the jungles. These beasts carry the seeds around for quite a while. Sooner or later they bruise the roots of the vine which is to serve as host, and at the same time leave a seed of Rafflesia in the damaged tissues, where the seed takes root and grows into another fantastic bloom.

This remarkable plant was first seen by a white man in 1818, when it was discovered in the dense jungles of Sumatra by a certain Dr. Arnold, and was brought to the attention of the scientific world by the British colonial administrator, Sir Stamford Raffles. The plant was therefore named Rafflesia (or, more fully, Rafflesia arnoldi). It is one of the rarest plants even in the jungles of Malaya and Indonesia. Obviously, if it could reproduce very easily, it would leave no room for other plants!