Rafflesia – A giant endoparasite grappling with habitat loss and poaching.
Scientific classification of Rafflesia
Kingdom – Plantae
Rafflesia was first discovered by a French naturalist, Louis Deschamps in Java somewhere between 1791-1794. Unfortunately, his notes were seized during a voyage. Later an Indonesian guide Dr. Joseph Arnold in 1818 found it during an expedition and the flower is named after Sir Thomas
Stamford Raffles, the leader of the expedition. Several species are found in southeast Asia on the Malay peninsula and a few other regions like – Borneo, Sumatra, Kalimantan, West Malaysia, and the Philippines
Unlike ordinary flowers, rafflesia has no fixed blooming season.
It takes nine months for the flower to grow. The full bloom lasts only five days and then it falls apart like a mushroom. The rainy season seems favorable for the growth of the monster flower. Each mature blossom of the flower produces millions of seeds of which only a few survive. To survive, the seeds must reach the host cells which isn’t a frequent process.
A parasite to the wild grapevines
We are all familiar with the nature of parasites. They need a host to survive. Likewise, rafflesia is a parasite to the wild grapes of the vine genus Tetrastigma which thrives in undisturbed rainforests. It absorbs nutrients and water from the vine by embedding strands of tissue into the host cells.
Five heavy petals decorated with red and white spots are the only visible parts of rafflesia. The parasitic flowering plant lacks any stem, leaf, or roots. It lives underground and becomes visible as a giant outgrowth.
Five petaled flowers with olfactory adaptations
When one thinks of flowers, the first thing that strikes the mind is a sweet aroma. But in the case of rafflesia, it’s just the opposite. Unlike normal flowers with soft petals and a sweet fragrance, rafflesia smells of rotten meat hence deriving the name ‘corpse flower’ or ‘meat flower’ which is a trap for the carrion flies-the pollinators of rafflesia. Red and white colouring and the olfactory cues attract the insect. The petals are leathery in texture unlike the soft ones and out of proportion from what we consider as a flower.
In some species, the flower may be over 100 cm in diameter and weigh up to 10kg. Even the smallest species has a diameter of 20cm. The flower can grow up to three feet, almost the size of a large tractor, and can weigh around seven kilograms. It wouldn’t be wrong to call them ‘the blooming champions.’
The individual flower of rafflesia is either a male or a female. The carrion flies are attracted by the rotten smell and are tricked into a space for laying eggs. They unknowingly get a blob of pollen deposited on their backs. The flowers also emit polysulphides to attract pollinators. The carrion flower produces a massive amount of viscous fluid as pollen, unlike ordinary flowers. The pollen dries on the back of the flies and remains viable for long durations. In contrast to its huge dimensions, the flower is a shy and temperamental one. Pollination is effected by nearby disturbances. Pollen behavior is mediated by thermogenesis. The plants release heat through which the volatile organic compounds are radiated. This feature of thermogenesis is comparable to skunk cabbage and is quite rare in the case of plants.
Rafflesia acts as a wound healer. It is used in peninsular Malaysia as an aid to stop internal bleeding and shrink womb size after childbirth in women. The seeds have been used traditionally as medicines and men use them as an energy drink. It is also effective for fever.
Why is it endangered?
Habitat loss and poaching are the major reasons behind it. Rapid urbanisation and industrialisation have led to the habitat destruction of several species. Overuse of rafflesia for medicines can also be
cited as a reason for the same. All in all human activities are responsible for the endangerment of rafflesia.
It’s high time we need to maintain a check on our activities and stop exploiting nature for our needs.