The buds of the Rafflesia, one of the largest flower in the world, are as large as the dinner plate while the bloom could be the size of a car tyre. Dr Chua Ee Kiam and his friends brave the arduous trails of Sabah’s forest reserves in search of this magnificient bloom, first discovered by Singapore’s founder, Sir Stamford Raffles, hence its name.

The Rafflesia flower is unique because it is parasitic and therefore has no stem, leaves or roots. This is also why it appears to grow up from the forest floor. The Tetrastigma vine is its host and the parasitic flower derives its nourishment by sending thread-like filaments into it. The Rafflesia is found in Southeast Asia where 14 species are known to exist. But these specimens are found only in a few localised habitats. Three species are found in Sabah while two species have been seen in Peninsular Malaysia; they are the Rafflesia cantleyi and R. kerrii.

Rafflesia flowers are one of the largest in the world. One can imagine how surprised and delighted the first discoverers of this unique bloom must have been when they came across it, “sitting” on the forest floor like some gigantic red-spotted mushroom. It was the founder of Singapore , Sir Stamford Raffles, who first chanced on this fabulous flower. At the time Sir Stamford was the Governor of Sumatra. He was riding on horseback, crossing jungle-clad mountainous Sumatra, accompanied by one Dr Joseph Arnold, when the pair came across the bloom. A born naturalist Raffles immediately took note of the flower which came to be named Rafflesia arnoldi (after the two intrepid explorers). The size of Rafflesia flowers, more than anything else, distinguishes them. The largest, Rafflesia keithii, (named after its founder, H G Keith, former Conservator of Forests in Sabah), grows up to 80 cm (about 2 1/2 feet) in diameter and can weigh up to 9 kilos (20 lbs). Rafflesia pricei (named after William Price, an amateur botanist) grows up to a diameter of 30 cm (about 12 ins, a ruler’s length.) Despite its size, the Rafflesia flower appears fragile but its petal-like lobes are surprisingly fleshy and firm. However, it does deteriorate after three days, turning from red and cream to dark brown and black before collapsing into a black slimy mass. Some say it has a repulsive smell but when I sniffed it I could not detect any odour – perhaps it wa stoo early to tell. It seems easier to encounter the Rafflesia buds than the blooms. These buds are spherical and cabbage-like and can grow up to 10 cm (Rafflesia pricei) and 16 cm (Rafflesia keithii) before it finally blooms.

Just Like a Human Baby!

  • From seed to bud, it takes no less than about one and a half years while from bud to full bloom takes another nine months just like a human baby! The seeds germinate and spread fine threads inside the vine. But alas, there is a high rate of bud abortion; as high as 75 percent has been reported. This is due mainly to natural causes. Heavy rains cause the buds to rot while too little rain shrivels them up. Small mammals may also have a go at them and visitors, in moments of inquisitiveness or insanity, may sever the bud from the vine. As Sabah’s forests are home to three known Rafflesia, this was where 1 went in search of this giant bloom. The R. pricei 1 found at altitudes of between 1200 and 1400 metres. If you are lucky you may spot it at Tenompok Pass on the slopes of Mt. Kinabalu and also at the Rafflesia Sanctuary Forest Reserve at Tambunan. Rafflesia keithii, grows at a lower elevation, about 400 metres, and is found on the eastern part of the Kinabalu Park near the Poring Hot Springs. The third species, R tengku-adlinii (named after its discoverer, Tenku Adlin) is found only on the Trus Madi Range. I have seen the first two species but this one has still eluded me and, with logging at the Range, the chances of my seeing it is getting slimmer by the day

The Rafflesia Forest Reserve

  • To get a reasonably good chance of seeing the Rafflesia, the first time visitor should head for the Rafflesia Forest Reserve at Tambunan. The entrance to this Reserve lies on the Kota KinabaluTambunan main road at 58km, about two hours drive from the city Just adjacent to the Crocker Range National Park, the Reserve encompasses an area of 356 hectares of highland dipterocarp and oak/ chestnut forest. Gazetted since 1984, this Reserve is an important tourist attraction. It has an information centre and also exhibits replicas of this magnificent flower. One of the richest sites for the Rafflesia pricei in this Reserve occurs at an elevation of 1,400 metres. A number of plots have been identified and marked trails lead one to the massive blooms. It may be a few minutes walk or a few hours, it all depends on your luck. But be prepared for steep descents and an arduous return journey. Not forgetting the blood-sucking leeches, if it is wet. About one kilometre before the Poring Hot Spring is an important site for the R. keithii. Look out for a junction there. A pondok or small hut will be opened for business if blooms are discovered. The villagers charge M$5/- for each tourist. This area is outside the Park’s jurisdiction. But you may encounter this bloom within the park, at the lowland rainforest of Poring, while on the uphill trail to the Laganan waterfalls.

Medicinal Uses

  • The bud was once sought after as a traditional medicine. The buds were boiled in water and the decoction given to recuperating new mothers, to help them regain their strength. It is not known if some tribal elders still revere the bud for this purpose, but like many of the other plants in the rain forest, the Rafflesia’s true value may take a long time to be realised.

Habitats under threat

  • The conservation of this unique parasite is dependent on the presence of the Tetrastigma vine. And, with logging of forests going on unabated in Southeast Asia, much of the Tetrastigma and hence Rafflesia habitats are being lost. Fortunately the Sabah government has gazetted the forest reserve at Tambunan specially for the protection of this flower. However, there is a tragic twist to these protection efforts. When the villagers heard that the government would gazette and take over their land, should Rafflesia blooms be found on it, they deliberately removed the buds and destroyed the habitats.
  • So, like all other precious wild plants and wildlife, it will take increasing effort to search out this beautiful bloom. But right now the Rafflesia forest reserve at Tambunan is a good and popular place to see the blooms. But again this flower’s beauty is so transient that only a few will be fortunate enough to catch it in full glorious bloom.

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