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Top 10 things you need to know about Rafflesia

Rafflesia, a flowering plant with no leaves and almost no stem, can easily be identified by its five leathery, speckled petals.

There are about 28 species of Rafflesia in the world, the most renowned being Rafflesia arnoldii.

Many visitors are willing to fly in just to see this plant in its natural habitat.

Here are ten things you need to know about this unique plant.

Rafflesia tuan-mudae found in Gunung Gading National Park.
Rafflesia tuan-mudae found in Gunung Gading National Park.
  1. The ‘largest flower in the world?’

One particular species, Rafflesia arnoldii, holds the record as the largest single flower of any flowering plant in terms of weight.

The largest measurement is 105 centimeters found at Palupah Nature Reserve, Sumatera. R. arnoldii and can weigh up to 11 kg.

  1. A parasitic plant

Rafflesia lives as a parasite on several vines of the genus Tetrastigma which grow only in primary rainforests.

Almost like a fungi, an individual Rafflesia grows as thread-like strands of tissue completely embedded within its host cells in which nutrients and water are obtained.

  1. Is it a real plant?

Rafflesia challenges traditional definitions of what a plant is.

This is because it lacks chlorophyll and is then unable to photosynthesise.

A study revealed that one Rafflesia species found in the Philippines, Rafflesia lagascae has no chloroplast genome, presumably because of its parasitic lifestyle.

This earned Rafflesia the title of first land plant without a chloroplast genome, which was thought to be impossible before.

It also lacks any noticeable leaves, stems, or even roots; nonetheless it is still considered a vascular plant.

  1. Another corpse flower?

The Rafflesia has a piercing, repulsive smell, almost like rotting meat prompting many locals to call it the ‘corpse flower’.

The foul smell is to attract insects such as flies, which transport pollen from male to female flowers.

But another plant, titan arum (Amorphophallus titanium) has also taken the title as corpse flower or ‘bunga bangkai’ in Malay.

Like the Rafflesia, titan arums are also found in Indonesia and Malaysian Borneo.

Furthermore, its odour is described more like the smell of a rotting animal.

A view of the inside of a Rafflesia.
A view of the inside of a Rafflesia.
  1. It takes a long time for it to bloom

Generally, the flowers can take up to ten months to develop from the first visible bud to its full bloom.

Once in full flower, the bloom may last no more than a few days.

  1. Only found in certain regions of the world

All of Rafflesia species can only be found in South East Asia.

These areas included peninsular Malaysia, Sumatra, Java, southern Thailand, Borneo and southern Philippines.

  1. Some species can only be found in Borneo

Home to one of the oldest rainforests in the world, Borneo also has its own several endemic Rafflesia species.

These species include Rafflesia keithii, Rafflesia pricei, Rafflesia tuan-mudae and Rafflesia tengku-adlinii.

Found along the slopes of Mount Kinabalu, Rafflesia keithii is endemic to Sabah.

It was named after Henry George Keith, former Conservator of Forests in Sabah.

Another Sabah native is Rafflesia pricei which was named after an amateur botanist William Price. Price discovered this species on Mount Kinabalu in 1960.

Mount Kinabalu was not the only mountain which Rafflesia called home in Sabah.

Rafflesia tengku-adlinii was discovered on Mount Trus Madi in 1987. This species was named after Sabahan conservationist Datuk Dr Tengku D.Z. Adlin.

  1. It was believed first discovered by Louis Deschamps but named after somebody else

A French doctor and explorer, Louis Auguste Deschamps was believed to be the first foreigner to see the Rafflesia.

He collected specimens and found Rafflesia in 1797 on the island of Nusakambangan. While Deschamps was making his way home in 1798 with his collection, the ship was taken by the British when approaching the English Channel.

The British, with whom France was at war, confiscated all his notes and specimens. It was only until 1954 when his possessions were rediscovered in the Natural History Museum, London.

About 20 years after Deschamps made his discovery, British botanist Dr Joseph Arnold’s local guide found the flower in the Indonesian rainforest in Bengkulu in 1818.

Eventually, the flower was named after Sir Thomas Raffles, the leader of the expedition.

  1. An official flower

Being one of a kind, it is not a surprise that this unique plant has been picked as an official flower.

In Indonesia, locally called the ‘padma raksasa’, the Rafflesia arnoldii is one of the three national flowers with the other two being the white jasmine and moon orchid.

It is also the official flower for Sabah, Malaysia and Surat Thani Province, Thailand.

  1. Threats to Rafflesia

 All known species of Rafflesia are threatened or endangered. Their habitats are highly localised making them even more vulnerable to extinction.

These threats included land clearing, logging and ethnobotanical collecting.

The flowers can take up to 10 months to develop from the first visible bud to its full bloom.
The flowers can take up to 10 months to develop from the first visible bud to its full bloom.
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