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 southeast Asia holds the all-time record-breaking bloom of 106.7 centimeters (3 ft 6 in) in diameter and 11 kilograms (24 lb) in weight, with petal-like lobes an inch thick. It is one of the rarest plants in the world and is 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 parasitizing 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 is 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 to the species, some efforts of initiating a research center and introducing laws to protect the largest and one of the rarest flowers in the world, like what happened in Malaysia and other SE Asian countries some years ago, are more than welcome.