Travel & Places Asia Pacific

An Introduction to the Rafflesia Flower

Rare, other-worldly, beautifully exotic, the rafflesia flower is a real treat for those lucky enough to see it when traveling in Southeast Asia.  The rafflesia flower, found in the rainforests of Southeast Asia, is actually a parasite which grows on only one type of vine.  When the enormous flower blooms, it emits the smell of rotting meat to attract insects - the rafflesia's only hope for reproduction.

Although challenging, viewing a rafflesia flower in bloom may be possible and will be a great memory of your trip to Southeast Asia!

A Little About the Rafflesia Flower

  • Reaching up to 22 pounds, the rafflesia is the world's heaviest flower.
  • Some species grow flowers up to 39 inches in diameter, making rafflesia the largest single flower of any flowering plant in the world.
  • The rafflesia flower blooms for only three to five days a year.
  • Only one vine in the world is hardy enough to host the rafflesia parasite.
  • The rafflesia is named after Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles - founder of Singapore - who discovered the flower during an expedition in 1818.  The rafflesia flower was discovered earlier by Louis Deschamps, however his notes were not made public until 1861.

Why the Rafflesia Flower is So Rare

The rafflesia is one of the world's rarest flowers for good reason: nearly perfect conditions must exist for a rafflesia to bloom.  First, a Tetrastigma vine - a member of the grape family - must become infected by the parasite.

  The Tetrastigma is the only vine in the world that can host the endoparasite that create a rafflesia flower.  Next, a tiny bud appears on the vine.  Many buds rot before maturing, some are even collected to be used as medicine by local people.  Over a year, the tiny bud swells to a ball and eventually bursts into a rafflesia flower.

To reproduce, a rafflesia begins to smell like rotting meat near the end of its life cycle.  The smell attracts flies which inadvertently carry pollen to other rafflesia flowers, if any, within range.  To make matters more difficult, rafflesia flowers are unisex and are usually found within range of the same sex.  Insects not only have to carry pollen to another rafflesia, they must take it to the opposite sex and do so within the brief flowering window of three to five days!

If successful, the rafflesia flower produces seedy fruit around six inches in diameter.  Although not proven, squirrels and small animals are thought to carry the seeds, helping the rafflesia to spread.

Where to See the Rafflesia Flower

Much to the disappointment and frustration of both botanists and tourists, rafflesia flowers may bloom unexpectedly any time of year.  When the rafflesia does bloom, it usually lasts less than a week before turning black with decay.  Rafflesia flowers pop up under perfect conditions in Borneo, Sumatra, Java, and the Philippines.  While the rafflesia flower sometimes blooms in the Cameron Highlands on Peninsular Malaysia, your best bet for finding this exotic parasite is in Borneo.  Flowers bloom regularly at Gunung Gading National Park in Sarawak, on the slopes of Mount Kinabalu, and in the hard-to-reach interior of Sabah.

The highest concentration of rafflesia flowers is found in Sabah between Kota Kinabalu and Tambunan.  Although only accessible by mountain road, the Rafflesia Information Centre (088-898501) is an authoritative place to learn about rafflesia flowers.  Gunung Gading National Park, less than two hours outside of Kuching, is an easy alternative for viewing rafflesia flowers in Borneo.  If planning a visit to Gunung Gading National Park, check with the park service office in Kuching to find out if any flowers are in bloom.

Mistaken Identity

Because of their color and smell, rafflesia flowers are often mistakenly referred to as “corpse flowers” - a name that actually belongs to the titan arum flower.  Native only to the rainforests of Sumatra, the titan arum is the largest unbranched inflorescence (a cluster of flowers on one stem) in the world.  Though technically larger than the rafflesia flower, the titan arum is lighter and less dense.  The titan arum holds the title “corpse flower” for reputedly smelling far worse than its distant cousin the rafflesia!

The Future of the Rafflesia

Due to the rafflesia's scarcity and brief lifespan, much is still unknown about these mysterious flowers;  at least three species are thought to already be extinct.  Malaysia continues to hold the world record for deforestation; both the endangered orangutans and rafflesia flowers fall victim to excessive habitat loss.  The flower buds - believed to be a natural medicine - are even collected by indigenous people before the rafflesia flower can bloom and reproduce.

There may be hope for the rafflesia flower yet: botanists in Sabah, Borneo were recently able to artificially grow a flower on a host plant for the first time.

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