The wonderful world of Rafflesia

The wonderful world of Rafflesia


the first part of rafflesia you see

The bud

It’s an amazing plant, but you don’t really see it for much of the time. Its fibrous roots and tissues invade the rainforest vine Tetrastigma and steal its nutrients as a parasite. But, once in a while it forms a small bud where the roots of the vine are exposed on the surface of the soil. This bud grows and grows over a period of six to nine months until it peels open into a monstrous flower, so large and bizarre it looks like plastic and totally out of place in the rainforest among the leaves. This plant is the Rafflesia, named after Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, the leader of an early expedition into what is now Indonesia in the early 1800s.

As far as flowers go, Rafflesia arnoldii holds the record for having the largest single flower in the world, up to 10kg in weight and 100cm across.So what is the reason for such massive, weird flowers? Well, first of all, they have an unusual smell of rotting meat – and they even have similar colours and the appearance of a piece of flesh left carelessly on the forest floor.

rafflesia flower

This flower does not look like it belongs. This, and the other pictures are of Rafflesia pricei.

This is where the flies end up visiting. Lured in by the smell they find themselves eventually covered in pollen.

So what is the massive Rafflesia flower all about?

What for? Well, if you sit and look at one of these flowers long enough you will see flies, particularly bluebottles flying in for a look. They land on the flower, expecting to be able to lay their eggs on a nice place for their young to feed and grow (indeed some do actually lay eggs on the flower which of course are doomed as they young will starve upon hatching) but often, after a brief inspection they decide there is nothing much of use to them so they fly away- with a payload of pollen of course. They will likely land on another Rafflesia and inspect it too, completing pollination.

It even looks like rotting meat

The attention from flies attracts another user of the flower, though an indirect one. Spiders, such as wolf spiders and huntsmans hide inside the flower, scurrying out when a fly lands on it. It’s an easy meal for the spider and also keeps it safely hidden from predators.

Closeup of a petal

Once the flower opens, its life is limited. Three or so days later decomposition sets in and very soon after it becomes a black mess on the forest floor. The seed capsule may be eaten by tree shrews and other foraging animals which likely spread the seeds.

But the sheer size of some of these flowers; is there a reason for that? Well this is one of the few cases in nature where the answer simply seems why not? Since the plant steals all of its energy from its host it is not its own to waste on producing such an extravagant flower. So, if you’re not using your own hard-earned energy you might as well do as much as you can with it.
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To find a Rafflesia in the wild, the best way is to seek local knowledge. If you happen to be in Sabah, Borneo the best source of information, and indeed a great place to find one of these flowers is the Rafflesia information center, located on the road between Penumpang and Tambunan, only an hour from Kota Kinabalu. You can easily jump on a long range taxi from the Kereta sewa terminal in the city and ask to be dropped off there (only RM20) or for RM100 hire a private taxi. The fee once there is RM5 for entrance fee to the forest reserve which is unfenced and wild, plus RM100 if you want a guide (up to 5 people can share a guide)- which you will as these flowers are hard to find. For more information contact the Sabah Tourism Board (www.sabahtourism.com)

Stay tuned for more information on other types of Rafflesia

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