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Thursday, February 17, 2011

Iconic Rafflesia

RARE SIGHT: A Gunung Gading National Park staff member shows the Rafflesia bloom.

NTERESTING LIFE: A sign at the park describes the Rafflesia’s life cycle.
Mary Margaret

THE easily accessible Gunung Gading National Park on the outskirts of the small town of Lundu is the place to be if you want to see a Rafflesia. It is all in the timing.
During the second last weekend of January, a group of Malaysian Nature Society members had perfect timing as the Gunung Gading National Park staff had recently located a Rafflesia tuan- mudae flower and several buds.
“The Rafflesia is blooming — so what are we waiting for?” With that, we headed out to view the stunningly beautiful parasitic flower.
The bloom was not along the specifically built wooden plank walk in the Rafflesia Area, but off the trail that heads up the mountain to the summit of Gunung Gading and the series of seven waterfalls.
We veered to the left into the hill dipterocarp forest thatblankets the park. The well-worn trail skirted large boulders and turned sharply to the left. A faint odour of rotting meat was the sign we had arrived.

Whether a first-timer or multi-timer in witnessing the miracle, the power of the flower is undiminished.
The two genera in the parasitic Rafflesiaceae family are Rafflesia — containing 16 species that are vulnerable to extinction and three Bornean species believed to be extinct — and Rhizanthes, which has two members found in Borneo and West Malaysia. Members of Rhizanthes have 14 to 18 lobes, while Rafflesia have five.
Unique only just begins to describe this plant. In 1818, Dr Joseph Arnold was the first European to describe it. He only saw it because his Indonesian assistant told him of the large blooming Rafflesia. They were already well known among the local communities and were used in traditional medicinal remedies.
The only parts visible of the parasitic Rafflesia are the perigone tube that branches into five large fleshy petal-like lobes. The rusty orangey red ‘petals’ are peppered with white or cream warts. The colouring pattern is a key indicator of the species. The inner wall of the perigone tube is covered with hair-like appendages and their shape and number, for example, are also used in species identification.

BIG FLOWER: The stunningly beautiful parasitic Rafflesia has five lobes. Photos by Robert Yeoh

Rafflesia flowers are either male or female. In the centre of the perigone tube stands the column where the reproductive organs— anthers in male flowers and ovaries in female flowers — are located. The number and the size of the anthers are another feature used in determining the species.
The large fleshy Rafflesia begins to deteriorate after four to six days, as the petal-like lobes blacken and wither. The stench attracts pollinators including carrion and bluebottle flies. Small animals are likely to disperse seedsither through their droppings on their fur and claws. For a seed to germinate and grow into a new 
Rafflesia, it must land on a vine of the Tetrastigma sp (Vitaceae), a member of the 
grape family. Its absorptive organ spreads through the host vine.
The Rafflesia does not seem to damage the host. A small bud appears in one to 1 1⁄2 years, which in about nine months, if it is not aborted, will unfold into a Rafflesia.
We were warned not to touch the buds because the bacteria on our hands might cause them to die. Although unclear why buds are aborted, it has been reported that two-thirds of Rafflesia arnoldi buds observed in Sumatra die before reaching maturity.
The cabbage-like buds are also sought for use in traditional medicine. This, along with limited range, habitat destruction, reproductive dependence on a Tetrastigma sp and souvenir hunters endanger the Rafflesia, a symbol of conservation in Sabah and Gunung Gading National Park in my opinion.

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