When somebody says the word “flower,” there are distinct images that come to mind. It’s easy to picture rows of tulips in the flatlands of the Netherlands or the serene temple gardens of Japan. Clusters of pink English roses, purple wisteria cascading from pergolas, or the mandala lotus flowers of India. Even your olfactory senses are involved. As you imagine these dainty buds, you imagine the scent, as well.
By some prank of nature, however, the biggest flower in the world is also the stinkiest. The Rafflesia – the largest flower known in existence – is a far cry from the garden flowers that perfume the air. It is big and smells of rotten meat. And instead of getting nutrition from the rain or a reticulation installation, the Rafflesia is a parasite, hogging water and food from its host.
But despite being bulkier and smellier than its pretty cousins, the Rafflesia is no less grand, so much so that it has become a symbol of countries and cities where it grows.
Rafflesia: A Profile
The Rafflesia is a genus of parasitic flowers that has about 18 species. It grows in the rich rainforests of South East Asia, particularly in Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, and Malaysia.
Unlike other flowers, the Rafflesia has no visible roots or leaves. How does it grow and feed itself? It often latches itself to members of the genus Tetrastigma of the Vitaceae family. In infected plants, a compact bud would burst through the bark. For a huge part of its life, the Rafflesia lies unnoticed in the woody roots and stems of its host. Then, when it’s ready to bloom, it unfurls into a large, fleshy flower.
The Appearance of the Flower
When in full bloom, the Rafflesia flower won’t fail to impress you. It spans about 1 meter in diameter (compare that to the 9 cm diameter of a large Ecuadorian rose) and weighs up to 22lbs. It has five petal-like lobes that are reddish-brown, covered with white spots. In the middle of the flower lies a hollow, cup-like structure, which houses a column with a disk.
The Rafflesia has both male and female parts that are located under the disk. It also has fruits – berries with tiny seeds. But most tourists don’t travel and hike to see the berries – they are after the grand view of the flower.
The Infamous Smell
You’ll be greeted with a putrid smell. The Rafflesia smells of rotten meat, so much so that it earned the nickname corpse flower. However, this stench serves a vital purpose: it attracts carrion flies. The pollen of the flower sticks to the backs of the flies, which then carries them across the area, infecting other plants from the Tetrastigma genus.
Species and Varieties
There are many species and varieties of the Rafflesia, depending on the place you’re visiting. The islands of Sumatra (in Indonesia) and Borneo (of which Malaysia, Brunei, and Indonesia have respective territories) is home to the R. arnoldii var. arnoldii and the R. arnoldii var. atjehensis. The main difference between the two is that the latter is missing the central disk. The Philippines has three species: R. manillana, R. schadenbergiana, and R. speciosa. These are just some of the many species known to exist, and many more are being discovered every decade.
In the Eyes of a Tourist
Rafflesia flowers become valuable tourist attractions because they are rare. Its current conservation status varies across different species, but they are far from abundant. Some are endangered (like the R. manillana), vulnerable (R. keithii and R. pricei), and rare (R. cantleyi).
A lot of local communities built a tourism industry around the Rafflesia, which is why you won’t have to venture out into the rainforest alone. Local tourism offices often have updated information on whether a Rafflesia is in bloom. You can hire a local guide to take you on tour.
In fact, the strength of local tourism gives communities the incentive to nurture and protect the species. It’s important to note that illegal collection is one of the main reasons the Rafflesia is dying out and becoming rarer each year. Illegal collectors harvest the flowers and sell them for a high price as a traditional remedy for internal injuries. Habitat destruction is also a key factor in the dwindling numbers. The rainforests of South East Asia face different kinds of threats, decreasing a Rafflesia’s chance of survival.
So while you marvel at the beauty of the flower, bear in mind, too, that it’s more than just size and stench – it powers local economies. It deserves protection as much as it deserves admiration.