Sunday, October 05, 2014

Rafflesia - A rare sight/site

SABAHANS and Sarawakians can boast about having the largest flower in the world growing in Borneo.

However, how many of us have actually seen this flower in bloom?

I first saw and photographed a painted concrete sculptured version of Rafflesia arnoldii at Mount Kinabalu National Park Headquarters in 1994.

Subsequently I have visited Mount Kinabalu on seven occasions –  memorably in the Millennium year to climb to the summit of Low’s Peak with 26 of my senior biology and geography students.

On each occasion I had hoped to see a Rafflesia in bloom. No luck. It was not until last May, upon returning from Poring towards Kundasang, that I spotted a small sign on the road stating “Rafflesia in bloom”.

This time luck was on my side in following an off-the-road track to a Kadazan Dusun farmstead to witness my dream for an entry cost of RM20. This was the best investment ever in my life!

Rafflesia is a rare plant and although 29 species have been identified worldwide, it is the Rafflesia arnoldii that is the most sought in Sabah and Sarawak. Why was it assigned this Latin name?

We can thank the Swedish botanist Linnaeus for the Latin nomenclature of plant types and Sir Stanford Raffles, then governor of Sumatra, and his botanist companion Joseph Arnold who, in 1818, collected a specimen of the plant.

They were not the first ones to discover the Rafflesia for in 1797, French botanist Louis Deschamps had collected another species, Rafflesia patma, on his expedition to Java.

We should remember that the plant was also well known by the people living in the collection areas and throughout its range.

Rafflesia arnoldii, found at an altitude of 500 to 700 metres in lowland forests in Borneo, Sumatra and Java, is the largest Rafflesia species. It grows to around a metre in diameter and weighs up to 11kg.

It is a parasitic plant living off a type of grape vine – the Tetrastigma. Thread-like strands, similar to those of fungi, are embedded in the vine to receive nutrients and aqueous solutions from the vine’s host cells.

Amazingly this plant, unlike most, is without chlorophyll and thus cannot undertake the process of photosynthesis. It is unique amongst all plant species for it does not have leaves or roots per se, but only flowers.

Taking energy from the host vine a carbuncle grows out of the vine in a cabbage-like shaped bud. It takes about nine months to develop.

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