Posted on 27 February, 2005 - 4:46am.
by Art Fuentes
To see the world’s largest flower for the first time is to encounter a life form so strange, it makes you wonder if you’re in the presence of something from a different planet or era. The Rafflesia is completely unlike any bloom you have ever seen, or for that matter will ever see.
The flower exists, without the usual parts we have come to associate with flowers, or even plants—no stem, no branch, not even leaves. Then there is also the matter of its size which ranges in diameter from a cabbage head to a car tire. The Rafflesia is the veritable T-Rex of the world of blossoms. And because of all its strangeness, the Rafflesia is an awe to behold.
What is the Rafflesia?
The flower is named after its European discoverer Thomas Stamford Raffles. First discovered in Sumatra in 1818, twenty Rafflesia species have been found so far in different parts of Southeast Asia. Many of the species are extremely rare, and have been recorded from only a handful of localities.
The flower is actually a parasite. It grows within its host, the tetrastigma vine, and in its early stages appears as but a tangle of fibers. It only starts manifesting itself during its reproductive cycle. Outgrowths appear on the root vine (1), then cabbage-like buds develop (2), then a fully open flower blooms (3) and bears fruit. The flowers themselves take a long time to develop.
From the time the bud appears, it can take 9-10 months for the flower to bloom. Not all buds bloom into flowers, a lot of buds decay before they can even open. Too much rain causes the buds to rot, while too little rain causes them to shrivel up and dry.
Each flower is either male or female. Female flowers are rare, and of these, fewer still are fertilized. The flowering episode itself is brief, and will last no more than a couple of days. Once in bloom, the flower releases a putrid scent that attracts flies and other insects that serve to pollinate it. For a female flower to get pollinated, a male flower must be nearby and also in bloom.
After a period of 3-5 days, whether or not they are successful at pollination, the flowers begin to wither and turn black. If the female flower was successfully pollinated, it will bear fruits that get buried somewhere near the bottom, waiting to be picked up by forest rats, insects or other animals. Finally, for the seeds to form another bloom, they need to find their way to the right kind of vine.
Despite significant scientific research, many aspects of the Rafflesia’s biology have yet to be figured out. We still do not know how its seeds germinate and grow and we have no idea why the Rafflesia associates itself with the tetrastigma vine.
There are currently three known species of the flower here in the Philippines. Rafflesia manillana can be found in Luzon, most prominently in Mt. Makiling in Laguna and Mt. Isarog in Bicol. The second species—Rafflesia schadenbergiana, was discovered in Mt. Apo in Mindanao in 1882, but has since never again been seen. It is probably already extinct.
The third Philippine species of the flower can be found in Southern Panay. Named Rafflesia species novum, it also the newest species of the giant flower to be discovered. Locally known as uroy, the Rafflesia has long been familiar to the residents of Mt. Porras in the towns of Sibalom and San Remegio, Antique. However, it was only in 2002 that the uroy was confirmed to be a distinct species. The newly-established Sibalom Natural Park quickly adopted the new Rafflesia species as its flagship attraction.
The discovery of the new Rafflesia species caused a sensation in the province of Antique. The discovery was reported in both the national and local dailies. A lot of visitors trooped to Sibalom Natural Park to see the giant flowers.
The uroy has great potential to be a major ecotourist attraction for the Sibalom Natural Park. However, steps must be taken to protect the flower from being overwhelmed by the influx of sightseers.
What are the threats to this species?
The Rafflesia is obviously a very sensitive living thing. The survival of the plant depends on a lot of factors—the seeds need to find the right host, the buds need to receive the right amount of water and nutrients, and flowers of the opposite sex must be near by so that pollination can occur.
In Malaysia, where the flowers have been star attractions in natural parks for years, park authorities have instituted measures to minimize the impact of tourism on the survival of the flowers. They found that a lot of buds failed to bloom when disturbed. Efforts at cultivating the flower have also met little success.While ecotourism must be carefully controlled, by far the most significant threat to the Rafflesia is the destruction of its habitat. The Rafflesia depends on the rainforest to survive. Across the Philippines, rainforests are being felled due to logging, mining, and the conversion of forest lands for commercial and residential uses. If these forests are destroyed, the Rafflesia may also cease to exist—along with other unique and irreplaceable Philippine flora and fauna.