The Rafflesia in full bloom. — Photo by Mary Margaret
SABAHANS and Sarawakians can boast about having the largest flower in the world growing in Borneo.
However, how many of us have actually seen this flower in bloom?
I first saw and photographed a painted concrete sculptured version of Rafflesia arnoldii at Mount Kinabalu National Park Headquarters in 1994.
Subsequently I have visited Mount Kinabalu on seven occasions – memorably in the Millennium year to climb to the summit of Low’s Peak with 26 of my senior biology and geography students.
On each occasion I had hoped to see a Rafflesia in bloom. No luck. It was not until last May, upon returning from Poring towards Kundasang, that I spotted a small sign on the road stating “Rafflesia in bloom”.
This time luck was on my side in following an off-the-road track to a Kadazan Dusun farmstead to witness my dream for an entry cost of RM20. This was the best investment ever in my life!
Rafflesia is a rare plant and although 29 species have been identified worldwide, it is the Rafflesia arnoldii that is the most sought in Sabah and Sarawak. Why was it assigned this Latin name?
We can thank the Swedish botanist Linnaeus for the Latin nomenclature of plant types and Sir Stanford Raffles, then governor of Sumatra, and his botanist companion Joseph Arnold who, in 1818, collected a specimen of the plant.
They were not the first ones to discover the Rafflesia for in 1797, French botanist Louis Deschamps had collected another species, Rafflesia patma, on his expedition to Java.
We should remember that the plant was also well known by the people living in the collection areas and throughout its range.
Rafflesia arnoldii, found at an altitude of 500 to 700 metres in lowland forests in Borneo, Sumatra and Java, is the largest Rafflesia species. It grows to around a metre in diameter and weighs up to 11kg.
It is a parasitic plant living off a type of grape vine – the Tetrastigma. Thread-like strands, similar to those of fungi, are embedded in the vine to receive nutrients and aqueous solutions from the vine’s host cells.
A blackish slimy heap is seen as the plant decays.
Amazingly this plant, unlike most, is without chlorophyll and thus cannot undertake the process of photosynthesis. It is unique amongst all plant species for it does not have leaves or roots per se, but only flowers.
Taking energy from the host vine a carbuncle grows out of the vine in a cabbage-like shaped bud. It takes about nine months to develop.
As the bud opens, the true beauty of this flower is revealed with its five petals of red with white spots and yellowish centre with brownish stamens on the male plant and thousands of eggs in the female plant.
The centre of the flower emits smells of rotting flesh to attract large flies and beetles.
These insects pollinate the flower as they flit from one plant to another of these unisexual plants.
For pollination to occur, a male and female plant must be in relatively close proximity. Alas, flowering of the Rafflesia only lasts for around a week.
A pollinated plant will produce a 15-centimetre fruit containing thousands of seeds. Tree shrews and squirrels avidly digest these seeds, which are deposited, through the animal’s excrement, elsewhere on the forest – frequently far from a Tetrastigma vine.
Although a unisexual plant, female and male species are seldom close together and botanists have calculated that the probability of male and female plants flowering at the same time as less than 80 to 90 per cent beyond the bud stage.
Hence the rarity of this plant. Beyond the flowering stage of five to seven days, the Rafflesia arnoldii deteriorates into a blackish slimy heap of decaying petals. Rafflesia, of any species, is no doubt one of the most difficult plants on earth to research.
Most eco-tourists to Sabah in the Mount Kinabalu National Park and Matang in Sarawak hope to sight a Rafflesia in bloom. Much local income is generated from those who have the luck to own the land where this ‘miracle’ occurs, but sadly on some sites the buds are harvested and consumed for their unproven medicinal qualities.
Worldwide Rafflesia is considered threatened and it is difficult to grow ‘in captivity’ in experimental stations.
With greater management and protection of these plants in various sites in Borneo further botanical investigations of these plants could proceed and still provide that extra income to the farmers and the holders of the lands on which these plants are found.
My RM20 was well spent to see this remarkable plant in its various stages of growth, in bud, in opening its petals, in flower, and in decay all on one small site.
Twenty years of my life have been spent in seeking Rafflesia arnoldii in bloom. At last, this year, my prayers were answered.
Who knows whether this indigenous plant will still be there for others to admire 20 years from now in 2034?
For further information read ‘Plant Life in Kinabalu National Park’ by Willem Meijer in ‘The Malayan Nature Journal’ Vol. 24 (1970-71) pages 184-189 or ‘Plant Life’ by EJH Corner in the Sabah Society Monograph: Kinabalu Summit of Borneo Chapter 6 pages 113-178. This publication has wonderful colour photographs.
The Rafflesia begins as a cabbage-like shaped bud.