Rafflesia
The World's Largest Flower

by Herman (2006)

The genus Rafflesia is named after adventurer and founder of the British colony of Singapore, Sir Stamford Raffles. After a jungle expedition in Sumatra (Indonesia) in 1821-22 Raffles and Dr Joseph Arnold, a young accompanying assistant surgeon in the Navy with a passion for natural history discovered and described the genus for the first time. Dr Arnold is memorialised in the specific name of the form that bears the world's largest flower: Rafflesia arnoldii.

There are about 20 described species of Rafflesia, some only discovered as recently as 1988. They are found on peninsular Malaysia and southern Thailand, on Borneo Island, in restricted areas of the Philippines and in Sumatra.

Unfortunately, the largest and heaviest flower of our times is also the rarest flower in the world. It is a parasite with very particular requirements, and flowers only burst open after 9 – 21 months to last a maximum of five days. Collection by indigenous people for mystical and medical potions and the current rate of habitat destruction don’t necessarily help in promulgating the amazing plant.

Description and Characteristics

The Rafflesia has no leaves, stem or roots. It grows invisibly inside the roots of certain woody vines of the genus Tetrastigma. The Tetrastigma are rather common in the tropical jungles of Southeast Asia and related to the grapevine, but the Rafflesias seem to prefer only about three specific species. Not unlike fungi, the Rafflesias spend most of their life as tiny threads that penetrate their host vine. But it produces a flower with stamens and pistils, and develops into a fruit with seeds. It is difficult to find Rafflesias in the jungle and normally they can only bee seen when they are ready to reproduce, which is when they bloom. In its early visible stages the Rafflesia is a protuberance that grows from the bark of its host and develops into a bud the size and appearance of a reddish-brown cabbage. Normally the buds are found on the jungle floor but occasionally a flower may develop somewhat above the ground. Because the buds and flowers are found on the Tetrastigma vines, the locals in Sabah claim that the vine is a plant that produces the Rafflesia…

Most buds rot before they attain maturity, but when they finally open after nine or more months they display five huge, fleshy petals that can reach in extreme cases almost one meter in diameter and weigh over seven kilogram. Whoever has been lucky and seen the humungous flower knows that it is simply breathtaking. Of a vivid to velvety deep red it is normally spotted white, giving it the appearance of a slab of meat. Together with this appearance come one or more gallons of nectar of a sweet-foul smell reminiscent of rotting flesh to attract flies which pollinate the flower. In the centre there is a spiked disk to which stigma or stamens are attached, depending on the sex of the plant. After 3-4 days the flower disintegrates into a slimy mess, leaving behind a fruit of some 15 cm in diameter and containing thousands of tiny, hard-coated seeds to squirrels and other small animals that are thought to be responsible for the distribution of the Rafflesia. However, it is yet unclear as to how the propagating process fully works as pollination in Rafflesia seems to be a rare occurrence. Rafflesias are unisex and in order to have successful reproduction the insect pollinators have to visit a mature male and a mature female plant. But Rafflesias are for the most part found only in proximity of same-sex plants, and a mature plant of the other sex might not be blooming in close proximity. To complicate matters is the fact that the flowers last less than a week, leaving but a narrow window of opportunity for pollination.

There doesn't seem to be any practical purpose for the flower to be so large. Perhaps having stolen their resources, the parasite can afford to waste it in extravagance. But for sure the spotting of a Rafflesia in its natural habitat is a moving experience!

Habitat

The Rafflesia is generally found at altitudes between 500 and 700 meters in the forests of Borneo, Sumatra and Java, peninsular Malaysia and the Philippines. In these tropical rainforests the climate is continuously warm, generally between 24-27º C with humidity frequently reaching 100% at night. In Sabah a Rafflesia Conservation Area has been set aside near Tambunan. It is an area where there is an unusually high concentration of Rafflesias, and one is almost guaranteed to see a Rafflesia in bloom. In the forests around Poring Hot Springs and at Kg Kokob one can also find Rafflesias (normally of the species preicii), and signboards on the road inform travellers when there is a flower blooming. Against a small fee the land owners will take you to the site of the bloom.

Since it is an extremely rare plant some locals consider it to have special properties. Local names for it include the “Devil's Betel Box” and “Corpse Flower,” and in Sabah it is also called ‘kukuanga,’ which literally means ‘pitcher plant,’ probably due to the fact that most seem to be filled with water and attract flies. The generic Dusun name for the vine on which the Rafflesia grows is “rumungondok, or rurumondok.” Because some species take nine months to develop the bud is used as a fertility charm or served as tea to make labour pains easier and to regain strength after birth giving. Being large, it is also considered an aphrodisiac in some places. However, in Sabah, the Dusun people do not collect the plant for medical or other purposes.

Conservation Issues and Status

All of the known species of Rafflesia are threatened or endangered. Three species are believed to be already extinct, and efforts to cultivate the plant have not yet yielded good results*. In Malaysia the Rafflesia is only a "Totally Protected Plant" by law in Sarawak. In Sabah and peninsular Malaysia it is only safeguarded by laws when found in protected areas like National or State Parks. In 2002, 44 out of the 83 Rafflesia flowers found in Sabah were outside of designated conservation places.

Eight out of the 19 known species of Rafflesia can be found in Malaysia, most of them in the jungles on the island of Borneo. Three species of Rafflesia are endemic to Borneo and amongst them one, R. tengku-adlinii seems to be endemic to Sabah only and is only know from two locations, one in the Maliau Basin and one in the Rafflesia Conservation Area. Because the Rafflesia is only found in specific areas often difficult to reach, and because it only blooms for a very short time little is know about its life cycle or the methods of pollination and seed dispersal. This in turn makes it difficult to find appropriate conservation methods. Outside national parks the local population in Malaysia is encouraged to save the flowers on their private properties and to show it to visitors against a small fee. This little income from time to time may go a long way in conserving the Rafflesia as it creates grater awareness of its uniqueness. However, in peninsular Malaysia flower buds are still sold as traditional medicine. The buds are seen as a sign of fertility, and are given to help mothers recover after birth. The over collection of these buds has not helped with conservation efforts but further drastically reduced the number of Rafflesia in the wild, accentuating the problem the alarmingly fast transformation of jungles into palm oil plantation creates. The Rafflesia is a delicate plant that relies on an intact environment and as such is naturally extremely vulnerable to deforestation and development.
 
Successful Cultivation of Rafflesias at the Tenom Agricultural Centre?

The last week-end in November 2004 presented a rare opportunity to visitors of the world renown Tenom Agricultural Park in Tenom to view a blooming Rafflesia flower.

While Rafflesias are not uncommon in Sabah, it is the first time that one came to bloom at the agricultural park. What is more outstanding is that this flower not only represents the second largest species of Rafflesia, but it is the fruit of an extraordinarily rare successful attempt by inoculation of the host vine where the Rafflesias grow.

Because the Rafflesia is one of the rarest plants on earth, and because it takes anything from 9 to 21 months until a bud flowers - only to last for less than a week - attempts at artificially growing them in order to study them have been made since 1929. The experiments all ended in failure.

The attempt at the Tenom Agricultural Park was initiated under the former park manager Anthony Lamb and former research assistant Herbert Lim, with the seeds coming from Dr Willem Meijer, a scientist who spend nearly three decades studying Rafflesias throughout South East Asia.

State Agriculture Department Botanist Jain Linton said that the discovery yesterday came as a shock after having waited for nearly ten years: "the last report on the successful propagation via seed inoculation was recorded in the Poring Orchid Centre, and at Kg Kokob (tel: 019 5384163), both in Ranau, in February 2000 by Sabah Parks. It took them about five years from inoculation to bloom.

"The emergence of the Rafflesia flower, which is of the keithii species and is the second largest, will probably raise more questions than answers on the cultivation," he added.

More buds were spotted in the experiment area and it is hoped that from time to time there will now be Rafflesia flowers in Tenom.

 


a Rafflesia in full bloom


close up of interior


in the opening phase


after one week...


on the way to Poring Hot Springs


a relatively small Rafflesia...


 

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