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by Rick Green, photography by Brian K. Smith

Rafflesia Tuan-Mudae flower.

Secluded in the sub-montane forests of Gunung Gading National Park on the island of Borneo is the Rafflesia tuan-mudae, an unusual endoparasite that relatively few have had the privilege of witnessing in full bloom. Fortunately, while Brian was en route to Kuching, I spotted a Facebook post by the Sarawak Tourism Board that said three of these plants were blooming. I was able to alert him before reaching Malaysia, and he was lucky enough to capture its full lifecycle.

Rafflesia Tuan-Mudae flower on rock beside forest trail.

There are approximately 28 species of Rafflesia, which are found only in Borneo, Sumatra, the Malay Peninsula, Thailand, and the Philippines. It is the largest, heaviest single flower in the world, yet has no apparent roots, leaves, or stem. They are typically 60 centimetres in diameter, but can grow as large as one metre across. Despite its size, much of its biology still remains a mystery.

Rafflesia Tuan-Mudae bud and flower on vine.

Rafflesia tuan-mudae grow only within the 4,106 hectares of Gunung Gading, which was specifically created in 1983 as a conservation zone for the plant. It is difficult to predict seeing one, since it has no set flowering season. Most of its time is spent inside the tissue of its host Tetrastigma vine, seen above.

Decayed Rafflesia Tuan-Mudae

In Gunung Gading, the Rafflesia blooms more commonly during the wetter months, from November to February. For it to be pollinated, a male and a female blossom in the same cluster must be open simultaneously, which is rare. It takes several hours for the flower's five thick, fleshy lobes to completely open. They emit a rotting flesh odour to attract carrion flies that transport the pollen from the male to the female.

Rafflesia Tuan-Mudae bud.

After no more than five days, the Rafflesia begins to blacken and decay. If one germinates, a small, dark brown bud will appear a month later. It then takes another eight to nine months for the bud to mature into a flower. However, given the length of its growing period, a high percentage of buds die from drought or heavy rain.

Closeup of decayed Rafflesia Tuan-Mudae.

Louis Auguste Deschamps was the first botanist to discover a Rafflesia in 1797 while on a French scientific expedition in Java. However, on the return voyage the following year, his ship was captured by the British and his papers seized. They were lost to science until rediscovered in 1954 in London's Natural History Museum. This allowed the British to first publish the discovery, based on a specimen found on Sumatra in 1818 by a Malay servant of the botanist Joseph Arnold and Sir Thomas Stamford Bingley Raffles, the founder of modern Singapore. Rafflesia is named after Raffles, while Rafflesia arnoldii commemorates Arnold, who died from a fever soon after the discovery.

Seeing the Rafflesia

Although the Rafflesia is the official state flower of Indonesia, the Malaysian state of Sabah, and the Thai province of Surat Thani, it has become endangered. The greatest threat is habitat loss from deforestation. Human disturbance from ecotourism has also significantly decreased the number of buds produced at many sites. Until recently, the plant's fragility and reliance on its host Tetrastigma vine had prevented it from being transplanted outside its natural habitat.

Gunung Gading National Park is near Lundu, less than two hours from Kuching by vehicle. There are several Sarawak Transport Company express buses daily between Kuching's Regional Express Bus Terminal and Lundu. From Lundu, you can either walk or take a pandan bus. A more expensive but convenient option is to charter a taxi for the day from Kuching, the cost of which you could share with others you might persuade to join you.

Before going out to the park, you should check with the park headquarters – tel: (+6) 082 735144 – to see if any Rafflesia flowers are in bloom. Alternatively, you can make inquiries with the National Parks Booking Office in Kuching at:

Visitors Information Centre
Sarawak Tourism Complex, Old Courthouse
Jalan Tun Abang Haji Openg
Kuching, Sarawak 93000
Tel: (+6) 082 248088

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