First discovered by Sir Thomas Stanford Raffles and his assistant Dr. Joseph Arnold in Bengkulu, Sumatra in 1818, this flower had fascinated the world by its big size and strong odor of decomposing flesh. Now this famous flower is on the brink of extinction.
Rafflesia Arnoldii can only grow in the undisturbed rainforest in Southeast Asia mainly in Borneo and Sumatra Islands. Several species are known to have grown in these areas. In Bengkulu, where the plant was first discovered, the flower can be found in Taba Penanjung, a natural reserve 44 km north of Bengkulu, a city in southern partof Sumatera Island.
Locally known as “patma raksasa” or giant flower, Rafflesia Arnoldii that grows in Bengkulu has weight up to 11 kilograms and diameter of around one meter. The flower with its five petals let out a disturbing odor just like the smell of dead body in an advanced stage of decomposition. The strong smell is needed to attract flies to transfer pollen from one flower to another. Although categorized as plant, Rafflesia does not have roots, stems, leaves and chlorophyll. The only part that makes it look like plant is its massive reddish brown flower.
Rafflesia is a parasite as it lacks the ability to photosynthesize. They parasitize few species of Tetrastigma (some kind of grape). Rafflesia has roots embedded within the host cell from which it obtains water and other nutrients. However, Rafflesia does not kill its host.
Pollination is rare because the flower is unisex. Unless there is a male flower in close proximity to a female flower that opens at the same time as the male flower so fliescould transfer pollen, no pollination will occur. Once pollination does happen, it takes months for the bud to bloom with mortality rate of 80-90% and the flower will only last for five to seven days only. The best time to see the flower is during the month of September to December.
In the last decade, the primary forest of Sumatra and Borneo, the main habitat of Rafflesia Arnoldii had been converted to timber concession or farmland. With the forest disappearing at an alarming rate, it can be assumed that the number of surviving Rafflesia Arnoldii is decreasing rapidly as well. In the next few years, it is feared that this plant can become extinct.
In addition, the sites where Rafflesia flower grows is not protected. Thus there is no guarantee that the flower will grow again on the same sites in the coming years. To make matters worse, local people often harvest the buds to be used as medicine.
Something obviously needs to be done to preserve this unique plant. Conserving the forest is critical although in many situation not always practical. Other ways to avoid extinction is by protecting the existing Rafflesia sites to enable an in situ breeding program so the flower could grow over and over again on the same sites. In addition to the in-situ program, ex-situ propagation can also be arranged by recreating the species environment outside its natural habitat.