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
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
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!
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
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
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.
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
a Rafflesia in full bloom
close up of interior
way to Poring Hot Springs
relatively small Rafflesia...