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
'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
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
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
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
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.