Sapria is an extraordinary plant. It has no leaves, stem or root, can’t make food by photosynthesis, and exists almost its entire life as threads of cells sucking out all its nourishment from vines growing in the rainforests of Borneo. The only time the parasite reveals itself in the open is when it bursts out as a huge flower the size of a dinner plate, coloured red with pale speckles, and stinking of rotting flesh. It’s also a relative of the largest flower in the world, Rafflesia arnoldii, another parasitic plant.
Recently, another bizarre feature of Sapria has been revealed. The species Sapria himalayana has lost about 44% of the genes normally found in flowering plants, and has also totally scrapped all the genetic remnants of any chloroplasts, the cell bodies that perform photosynthesis, the first known case of a plant abandoning its chloroplast inheritance. Although other parasitic plants have junked many of their genes, it’s nothing like as extreme as Sapria – the dodder parasite, for example, has only lost 16% of its genes. And to cap its extreme parasitic life, Sapria has also stolen more than 1% of its genes from its host vine.