A plant with no leaves, no roots, no stem and the biggest flower in the world sounds like
the stuff of comic books or science fiction. 'It is perhaps the largest and most magnificent flower in the world'
was how Sir Stamford Raffles described his discovery in 1818 of Rafflesia arnoldii, modestly named after himself
and his companion, surgeon-naturalist Dr James Arnold.
This jungle parasite of south-east Asia holds the all-time record-breaking bloom of 106.7
centimetres (3 ft 6 in) diameter and 11 kilograms (24 lb) weight, with petal-like lobes an inch thick. It is one of
the rarest plants in the world and on the verge of extinction.
As if size and rarity weren't enough, Rafflesia is also one of the world's most distasteful
plants, designed to imitate rotting meat or dung. The flower is basically a pot, flanked by five lurid red-brick
and spotted cream 'petals,' advertising a warm welcome to carrion flies hungry for detritus. Yet the plant is now
hanging on to a precarious existence in a few pockets of Sumatra, Borneo, Thailand and the Philippines, struggling
to survive against marauding humans and its own infernal biology.
Everything seems stacked against Rafflesia. First, its seeds are difficult to germinate. Then it
has gambled its life entirely on parasitising just one sort of vine. This is a dangerously cavalier approach to
life, because without the vine it's dead.
Having gorged itself on the immoral earnings of parasitism for a few years, the plant eventually
breaks out as a flower bud, swells up over several months, and then bursts into flower. But most of the flower buds
die before opening, and even in bloom Rafflesia is fighting the clock. Because the flower only lasts a few days, it
has to mate quickly with a nearby flower of the opposite sex. The trouble is, the male and female flowers are now
so rare that it's a miracle to find a couple ready to cross-pollinate each other.
To be fair, though, Rafflesia's lifestyle isn't so ridiculous. After all, few other plants feed
so well that they have evolved monstrous flowers. But now that logging is cutting down tropical forests, the
precious vine that Rafflesia depends on is disappearing, and Rafflesia along with it. The years of living
dangerously are becoming all too clear. There are at least 13 species of Rafflesia, but two of them have already
been unsighted since the Second World War and are presumed extinct, and the record-holding Rafflesia arnoldii is
facing extinction. To make matters worse, no one has ever cultivated Rafflesia in a garden or laboratory.
Considering all these threats for the species, some efforts of initiating a research centre and
introducing laws to protect the largest and one of the rarest flowers in the world, like it happened in Malaysia
and other SE Asian countries some years ago, is more than welcome.