Sunday, January 02, 2005
Rafflesia - From Medicine to Spectacle
The “Queen of Parasites,” rafflesia, has become a forest-destination for Malaysian tourists, and a renewed source of income for the Orang Asli.
Rafflesia pricei Meijer
It takes something beyond taste to appreciate a three-foot-wide flower with “white warts.” It takes the baby blues.
Rafflesia flowers, native to Indonesia, have been used in traditional medicine “to stop internal bleeding, shrink the womb and restore the female figure” after childbirth. The gigantic parasitic plant grows in the forests of Borneo and nearby islands.
But the post-modern blues are taking precedence over post-partum folk medicine. Logging and development have encroached on the plant’s habitat; meanwhile, the Orang Asli people, who have harvested and sold rafflesia for generations, say that prices have declined in the past two years, both for rafflesia flowers and for the Rajah Brooke butterflies they attract.
“Now we know that the flower has a higher value when protected,” one Orang Asli collector told the Malaysia Star. “Tourists are willing to pay more to see a rare bloom of the Rafflesia.” Just so, the people, who used to harvest these giant, pimply flowers, now are guiding tour groups through the forests where the rafflesia have survived.
Those living in prescription-drug cultures may lament that another folk custom is dwindling, and that the mysterious fungal flowering within that custom has been turned into an exotic experience some of us can and will buy. (Dean MacCannell’s book The Tourist explains this whole creepy process.) But if indigenous societies, as well as rafflesia and the Rajah Brooke butterfly, can persist—finding new means of survival, without slot machines, for Pete’s sake —that worth an ocean of postmodern tears.
Note: Welcome to our most recent Human Flower Project visitors from Brunei, home to Rafflesia pricei Meijer, pictured above.)