Raffesia mira: yet another reason to be proud of the Philippines!
Posted on 5 April, 2006 - 12:17pm.
By Art Fuentes
A biologist once said that for every species named, there’s still another four or five waiting to be discovered.
Some people may see this remark as an article of faith rather than a statement of fact. But sometimes keeping faith has its rewards.
Another species of the rare giant flower Rafflesia was discovered here in the Philippines. Filipino scientists led by Dr. Edwino Fernando and Dr. Perry Ong trooped to a remote mountain in the town of Maragusan, Campostela Valley Province in Mindanao. They came to verify a story that was until then mere rumor—another species of the strange bloom was growing there.
It was true. The scientists, overcome perhaps with their own discovery, named the new plant Rafflesia mira. Their discovery is made even more astonishing when considered that barely three years ago in 2002, another species of the extremely rare plant was found in the mountains of Antique province. Named Rafflesia speciosa, the rare flower has since been adopted as the official symbol of the Sibalom Natural Park and the municipality of Sibalom in Antique Province.
R. mira is the fourth Rafflesia species identified in the country, along with R. speciosa, and R. manillana. Another species, R. schadenbergiana was last recorded in 1882 in Mt. Apo in Davao. It has not been seen for more than a century and is now believed to be extinct.
If it is true that for every species named, there’s still another four waiting in line, then we really have barely scratched the surface, as shopworn as that may sound.
Strange bloomThe Rafflesia is completely unlike any bloom you have ever seen, or for that matter will ever see. Unlike other flowers that are just parts of plants, the Rafflesia flower is the plant itself.
It also exists, without the usual parts we have come to associate with flowers, or even plants—no stem, no branch, not even leaves. But its real strangeness lies in its size, these blooms range in diameter from a cabbage head to a car tire. Finally, instead of the pleasant scents we’ve come to normally identify with flowers, most of these giant blooms emit a foul rotting odor.
Rarest of the rareThe flower is named after its European discoverer Thomas Stamford Raffles. First discovered in Sumatra in 1818, more than 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.
LifecycleEach 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.
Photo: Manila Bulletin
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.
R. mira, a remarkable and surprising discovery.
Rafflesia mira (Fernando and Ong sp. nov.) in Mt. Candalaga, Campostela Valley Province, Mindanao.Reprinted from Asia Life Sciences G14(2):269, 2005. Photo by Rhonsan Ng
New discoveryWhat could possibly be the smallest of the largest species of Rafflesia in the Philippines was recently discovered in Mt. Asog in Camarines Sur. It measures 12-13 cm in diameter. The discoverer, a group of researchers from the Camarines Sur State Agricultural College, proposed that the species be named Rafflesia irigaenses. (Photo courtesy of CSSAC)
R. mira probably deserves its grandiose name. It measures between 22 cm and 29 cm in diameter, much larger than Antique’s R. speciosa which measures 18-20 cm, and definitely larger than Luzon’s R. manillana which spans a mere 14-20 cm in diameter. (It’s the smallest of its kind, but try placing it next to a rose!).
According to Dr. Fernando and Dr. Ong in their article published in the Asia Life Sciences journal (14:2005), R. mira was first seen and photographed in Mt. Candalaga in Campostela Valley Province. They added that it is similar to R. speciosa in size and dimension, but differs in wart distribution and pattern.
The National Museum has already coordinated with Maragusan’s local government to develop a conservation plan for the new plant species. It is feared that curious people might troop to the forest and accidentally destroy the fragile flowers, their buds or the Rafflesia’s host-vines.
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 nearby 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.
The discovery of R. mira and R. speciosa demonstrates the need to preserve what’s left of our natural forests. If things as rare and unique as these plants can be discovered within years of each other, who knows what else we can find in our forests?