By Henrylito D. Tacio
Davao City, 1 May 2010. Question: What is the world’s biggest individual flower? Answer: Rafflesia.
Rafflesia was first discovered in the Indonesian rainforest by a guide working for Dr. Joseph Arnold in 1818. So far, 27 species has been found of the plant that was named after Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, who headed the team which discovered the unique plant. They can only be found in southeastern Asia, particularly Malay Peninsula, Borneo, Sumatra, and the Philippines.
What is unique about rafflesia is that it has no stems, leaves or true roots. It is a parasitic plant whose only host is the Tetrastigma vine which belongs to the grape family. Rafflesia spreads its root-like thing inside the tissue of the vine, and absorbs its host’s sap until it matures. The only part of the plant that can be seen outside the host vine is the five-petaled flower, whose size ranges from three feet wide to inches in diameter.
This parasitic plant may not become a popular ornamental at homes as its waxy-looking red and white-freckled blossom smells like rotting corpse. The flowers’ smell gave the plant its local names which translate to “corpse flower” or “meat flower.” However, the vile smell attracts insects such as flies and carrion beetles, which transport pollen from male to female flowers.
Actually, rafflesia belongs to the mysterious Rafflesiaceae family. With the advent of DNA tests, it was revealed that comparing the mitochondrial DNA sequences of rafflesia with other flowering plants, it was found that that this parasite evolved from photosynthetic plants of the order Malpighiales and is closely related to the family Euphorbiaceae (from which poinsettia and euphorbia belong), which is astonishing as members of that family typically have very small flowers.
Until now, the life cycle of rafflesia remains a mystery. People tend to see the plant only when it flowers, and it is found only in a specific location. “Rafflesia blooms usually in the rainy season, and begin to senesce in a few days, turning to slimy, black masses,” says Nestor A. Badilla, who was instrumental in bringing to public attention of the newest species rafflesia in the country.
Though a single female flower may produce thousands of seeds, little is known about how it disperses its seeds. One theory postulates that when hoofed animals such as deer, wild pigs, and tapirs inadvertently trample mushy, rotting rafflesia flowers, the seeds adhere to the hairs on their feet.
Since 2002, Filipino scientists and botanists have been tremendously active in discovering and naming several new species of rafflesia. The most recent species was discovered in Maragusan, Compostela Valley.
How it was discovered was an interesting story in itself. According to Badilla, television host and former Miss Universe Margie Moran came to the town and showed him the picture of the flower. She asked him if he had seen it. He answered affirmatively.
After it was shown in the television, some Filipino scientists came to the town and made a study. True enough, it was rafflesia and was a new species (Rafflesia magnifica).
The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species listed the species as critically endangered due to “the continuing decline in extent and quality of habitat, and the very small size of the population.” A road infrastructure project is planned on part of the mountain where the species can be found. In addition, the lower mountain slopes are converted into banana plantations.
“Rafflesias are enigmatic group of parasitic flowering plants which deserves attention as it is unique, intriguing, and at the same time endangered,” one Filipino botanist urges. “Their survival will depend on how we take care of our forest. It is a plant not intended for the home garden, however, it will be a very popular plant to attract foreign tourists in a botanical garden.”
In Final Fantasy XII, rafflesia is the name given to a major enemy in the Feywood stage, whose appearance and abilities appear inspired by the giant bloom. In the manga Captain Harlock, rafflesia is also the name of the Mazones’s queen. On the other hand, the title of the song “Lafflesia” by Malice Mizer is an altered spelling of rafflesia, and in the song a beautiful flower is mentioned.
Photo courtesy of Maragusan Tourism Office.