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May 27, 2009

The Bride of Frankensteinís Corsage

Tom McLaughlin

Gunung Gading National Park, Borneo Island – I could tell you a lie and say I hacked my way through the jungle to see the largest flower on the planet. I could write that I slept in a hammock fighting off vipers, leeches and hordes of mosquitoes just to witness the flower before it faded into a rumpled mass.


It would have been a great story with many embellishments as the years passed. And everybody would have believed it, including those in the scientific community.


The above are the trials of many people in their quest to view the Rafflesia tuanmundae in other parts of Southeast Asia. However, we drove two hours in a comfortable car, leisurely ate lunch of fried rice with fresh shrimp, meat and veggies cooked Foo Chow style and had a lazy walk in the forest. Then, back home to a warm shower, dinner in a KFC and watched Mama Mia (again) courtesy of a US$1.38 pirated CD.


Seeing this very rare flower was last on my list of experiences. I knew it was to open in mid-April and then another one would follow suit in October. I figured it could wait until then, not wanting a long jungle trek after my leech experiences looking for apes.


We drove to the entrance of the park and – as I looked out the car window – my heart sank. There was a tall steep hill and the park station was located at the base. I shook my head. “Not another climb,” I thought.


We stopped and registered at the office where I was informed we would need a guide and it would only take 30 minutes to arrive at the scene. When informed of how long something takes getting some where in the jungle, I always multiply by three. And we needed a guide? This was going to be the hike from hell!


Reluctantly, I smeared myself with OFF cream against the mosquitoes. My friends put on their boots, tucked their pant legs into their long socks to prevent leeches and carried an ocean of water in bottles. I prefer to wear shorts because then I can see the little blood suckers and pull them off. They have the uncanny ability to worm their way through clothes regardless how well protected one tries to be.


Carrying my camera I followed, last in a single file, to the flower. We trooped up a very mild grade, through a stream bed, onto a narrow path through the forest and suddenly, about 15 minutes later, we were there.


Three meters high, on the edge of flattened section of huge granite bolder, was the weirdest, strangest thing I had ever seen. It looked like the eye of some monster in a B grade 1950’s horror film. I envisioned it was a window to the world of a living slime creature housed inside the rock. It was horrible looking.


It took awhile to comprehend the sight and to take in the image, my mind refusing to believe it actually existed. “That thing can’t be a flower!” I said to myself. It was hideous meat color with five petals that flopped over the sides. They had dime size off-white puckers that looked like blisters from a severe burn. Small carrion flies buzzed around what I would call a mouth. The huge thing was 75 cm across. All I could to do was stare.


I have known that the flower was supposed to produce a stench that would bring you to your knees and require gas masks. Mercifully, this one had very little odor. Saints be praised.


My science friends spent the next two hours taking pictures from every conceivable angle effusing the beauty of it. They kept on about how lucky everyone was to see it in such perfect condition. They climbed up the stone face to examine it closer but after an effort, and because of the malady, I could not get as close as I wished. I had a very real fear it would suddenly come alive and attack.


I was looking at Rafflesia, the largest flower in the world. A parasite on the Tetrastigma vine, the one I usually always trip over, they flower for only three days. Mine was attached to a vine snaking across the top edge of a boulder and was in day two of its opening.


The Carrion fly pollinates the flower moving from stamens to pistils. How they are dispersed is unknown but my friend seems to think an insect eats the rotting flower and then excretes the fine-grain, sand-size seeds. Then, by a very slim chance, one may land on this one vine that can host them. This reproduction technique makes it very rare. Besides, I doubt anything would want to have relations with it, plant or animal.


The flower is named for Stamford Raffles, the guy who started the English settlement at Singapore. He introduced it to the western world. Many think he discovered both the island and the flower but both were already known to the people who live here.


The local people told me they call it Ibu Boppa, mother and father. They boil parts of it in water and drink it as a tea to cause vomiting. Just looking at it can cause that.


I could have told you I had a great adventure trying to find this flower and it would have been a lie. The truth is, my description may sound like a lie, but it is the truth, so help me.


Life is good.


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