Nature Escapes

Nature's Bold And Beautiful Rafflesia Bloom, Have You Seen This Jungle Gem Yet?

It's been described as gigantic, odd, exceptional, rare and mysterious. The Rafflesia flower brings out the awe in awesome.

Sometimes nature just blows you away.

And seeing the world's largest flower in the wild is one such experience. How do you explain a monster bloom bursting in the jungle like an exploding fire-red sunburst? Just to disappear in a fizzle of wilted goo after one week.

Rafflesia Rafflesia

Science is about discovery. And the discovery is in the journey.

  • So who saw this jungle rarity first?
  • How does this rainforest flower grow so large without leaves?
  • If you discovered this magnificent plant, what would you call it?

Let's follow the Rafflesia trail to its fascinating past and uncertain future.

"Rafflesia Is To The Plant Kingdom, What The Panda Is For The Animal Kingdom."

-- Jamili Nais in Rafflesia of the World

Rafflesia Rafflesia Rafflesia

Who Gets Credit For Discovering A New Species? Jealousy In The Jungles of Java and Sumatra

Most accounts give credit to Dr. Joseph Arnold, a British physician. Others believe a French surgeon, Louis Auguste Deschamps, was the first western witness to bring its attention to the scientific world. Of course local people were always aware of the plant.

So who gets to be first and who is second in the annals of history? One story claims discovery in 1797, the other in 1818.

Deschamps was the doctor-naturalist aboard a French frigate that was seized by the Dutch in east Java (Indonesia). But because of his keen interest in natural history, the Governor of the Dutch Colony asked him to survey and study the island. So he made collections all over Java and wrote a manuscript with illustrations and notes of all the remote places visited.

The British and French were at war when Deschamps returned to France in 1803. His boat was captured by British soldiers and all of his notes and specimens became British property. Eleven years worth of research sat idle until a buyer donated them to the British Museum in 1861.

The East India Company in Sumatra was run by Sir Stamford Raffles, the governor. Dr. Arnold, as the lead botanist, took Raffles on his first expedition to the interior in 1818. A villager pleaded to show them "a flower, very large, beautiful and wonderful!" Arnold later wrote that "I rejoice to tell you ... what I consider as the greatest prodigy of the vegetable world."

Sadly, Arnold died of malaria before the expedition finished and soon after this discovery of Rafflesia in Sumatra.

Arnold's research findings found their way back to England, where others finished the analyses and published the new genus of Rafflesia, named for Sir Raffles, in a scientific journal in 1821. Thus marking the official discoverer of Rafflesia as Dr. Arnold.

A Scottish surgeon-naturalist, William Jack, took over the role left vacant by Dr. Arnold in Sumatra. Jack tried to rush through a scientific publication in 1820 on another Rafflesia species to beat Arnold to name-claiming fame. But his efforts were thwarted when the Linnean Society held back his paper to allow Arnold's work to be credited first.

Jack died of a tropical disease soon after sending his findings to England, and was not published until 1880.

Until the 1950s, Arnold was acclaimed as the discoverer of Rafflesia. But remember those research papers deposited in the British Museum?

Searching through Deschamps' notes at the museum, researchers saw an illustration of a big flower. They surmised that in 1797, "Deschamps was the first white man to see and examine Rafflesia, twenty years before Arnold found another species in Sumatra."

And remember that letter Arnold wrote before his death? It mentioned that he saw an illustration in the field notes of a Dr. Horsfield, an American working in Java, that resembled the buds of a Rafflesia flower and the host vine.

That illustration is probably the same one found in the British Museum. So Deschamps, whose life's work was seized and sequestered away by the British, surfaced because of a single drawing.

Rivalries exist in science just as much as on the football pitch. Even back in the 1800s.

Dr. Arnold's discovery was genuine, though not the first. Jack tried to take a shortcut and was stopped due to respect for Arnold. And years later, it took others to break through the British-French rivalry and recognize Deschamps in his rightful place among discoverers.

That is how science works, with jealousy, rivalry, respect, skulduggery, serendipity and whatever humans can conjure up.

[Note: The above account of the discovery of Rafflesia was adapted from Rafflesia of the World, Sabah Parks (2001)]

Rafflesia Rafflesia Rafflesia Rafflesia

How Does A Rafflesia Grow Without Leaves?
The Parasite And The Perfect Host

Everything about this wild rainforest flower is crazy. It has no leaves or roots, yet it blossoms into the biggest spectacle on the forest floor. And it is dependent on jungle vines and flies to reproduce. What a whacky way to survive.

So let's try to follow its unique sex life.

The Rafflesia flower flames out after a week and crumples into a black blob. What's left is a hard fruit made from the central, spiky disk that contains thousands of tiny seeds and matures over 6 to 8 months.

Rafflesia cannot make its own food; it must snatch water and nutrients from another plant. That plant is the woody climber or liana. Yes, those swooping, Tarzan-type vines that hang from tropical trees. Not any jungle vine, only a few species known as Tetrastigma.

So how do the seeds from the mature fruit make contact with the host vine?

Scientists speculated that squirrels, wild pigs and elephants broke open the hard fruits and spread the seeds. Only in 1989 did they observe both squirrels and treeshrews munching on fruits with a face full of seeds. This is what scientists call an "Aha!" moment; teenagers would say "Gothca!"

What is still fuzzy is how seeds attach to the Tetrastigma vine and germinate. These lianas serve as the host for the parasite Rafflesia, which links small threads into the vine's roots or stems to siphon off food. For the next 9 to 12 months, little buds break through the bark and grow on the stem to form a brown, bowling ball-sized mature bud.

Most buds die off because the host vine cannot provide enough nutrients for all the extra buds on the stem. So over 50% to 90% of buds do not bloom. And rodents, porcupines and pigs gnarl on them too.

The survivors slowly unfurl their petals within 12 to 48 hours to reveal a sparkling rainforest flower ready to attract its prey: the carrion fly.

Everybody knows what flies like ... yes, stinky stuff like the garbage. Well guess what fresh Rafflesia flowers smell like? Yes, stinky stuff. And the flies come in bunches to check out this tasty odor of rotting meat or fish. Even the warm reddish color of the flower is said to mimic a dead animal in decay.

Wild Rafflesia flowers bloom to attract flies for pollination. Carrion flies buzz around the big openings looking for food and bump into sticky pollen globs that attach to their backs. When searching other nearby flowers, pollen rubs off on some female flowers to fertilize them and eventually make fruits.

So in truth the Rafflesia is a con artist. Tricking flies into a smelly meal that is never served. Only to serve the flower to carry pollen from male to female flowers.

How tricky is the whole sexual process? Think about the odds.

Rafflesia flowers only open up for one week, deceive flies and hope they visit a male and female flower. Then require rodents to chew open fruits and disperse seeds into a jungle vine. Then steal enough food and survive to grow mature buds. And bloom anew to start the whole process over.

Nature is wicked and whacky sometimes.

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Rafflesia Rafflesia Rafflesia

Rafflesia Species List

Species Discovered
R. arnoldii 1818 Sumatra, Borneo
R. azlanii 2003 Peninsular Malaysia
R. baletei 2006 Philippines
R. banahawensis 2006 Philippines
R. bengkuluensis 2006 Sumatra
R. borneensis 1918 Borneo
R. cantelyi 1881 Peninsular Malaysia
R. ciliata 1918 Borneo
R. gadutensis 1984 Sumatra
R. hasseltii 1879 Sumatra
R. keithii 1984 Borneo
R. kerrii 1984 Peninsular Malaysia, Thailand
R. lobata 2006 Philippines
R. manillana 1841 Philippines
R. micropylora 1984 Sumatra
R. mira 2005 Philippines
R. patma 1797 Sumatra, Java
R. pricei 1984 Borneo
R. rochussenii 1850 Sumatra, Java
R. schadenbergiana 1884 Philippines
R. speciosa 2002 Philippines
R. tengku-adlinii 1989 Borneo
R. titan 1821 Sumatra
R. tuan-mudae 1868 Borneo
R. witkampii 1918 Borneo

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