Rafflesia patma, of the Family Rafflesiaceae is famous for its sister species, Rafflesia arnoldii, discovered in 1818 by an assistant to Joseph Arnold and named after Sir Stamford Raffles who was the expedition leader, is recognized as being the world’s largest single flower and often mistakenly called the carrion flower (the true carrion flower is the Amorphophallus paeoniifolius.) There are about 30 reconized species of Rafflesia genus in Borneo, Malaysia, Sumatra and Java of which about 17 are native to Indonesia.
R.patma is a remarkable and rather rare, parasitic plant, it spends nearly all of its life cycle inside the stems of a woody climbing vine plant, Tetrastigma (Vita) which is found in the lowland forest along the south coast of West and Central Java. Another Rafflesia species, R.zollingerina has since been recognized as the same species.
It has no true stems, roots or leaves and tends to just grow inside like a fungus. Every once in a while a flower will erupt forth out of the Tetrastigma vine smelling of dead flesh and carrion which attracts carrion flies and beetles which help to fertilize it. The bud takes about 18 months to grow, but the flower usually last only 4-5 days at best. It has a pale salmon pink colour, which is hypothesized to represent a fleshy wound. The flower we saw was approx. 60 cms in diameter, though it can grow up to one meter.
Pangandaran is a conservation area famous for having a large number of these plants, though many were lost when the authorities cleared a large flat area of land for offices and a rest house. Given their specialized life cycle that plant needs a forest rich in Tetrastigma vines, Tetrastigma seed dispersers such as bats and other arboreal mammals, populations of large mammals to provide, when dead, brood sites for the calliphorid flies, dispersers of rafflesia seeds such as squirrels and other mammals of the forest floor and healthy soil microfauna to allow infection of the vine root, it’s a wonder that this plant has not yet become extinct.
Bogor Botanical Gardens have been attempting to cultivate this plant for 80 years and 2010 was the first time they managed to successfully produce a flower of R.patma and they have only repeated this on five occasions since.
If you wish to see this flower live, you’ll need to get down to Bogor this week. Entrance is only 10,000 Rp per person (no car parking available on weekends) and there are plenty of signs throughout the gardens to the cultivation centre.
The Ecology of Java and Bali, Whitten. T, Soeriaatmadja. R. E, Afiff. Suraya. The Ecology of Indonesia Series Volume II. Periplus 1996