In Search Of The World’s Largest, Smelliest Flower
Updated: Jul 31, 2018
It had cost more than expected to get a 4x4 to drive up and over the ridge which separates the two sides of the island. It had also been a hair raising trip. No one who lives on Tioman Island in Malaysia actually possesses a driving license because, well, there aren’t officially any actual roads.
The 4x4 drops me and Macs off with our luggage close to our accommodation - one of a few small cabins sitting directly on the sand at the back of Juara beach next to a mangrove fringed river. By the side of the path, two large monitor lizards sit snoozing amongst the fallen vegetation. They are both easily over three and half foot long and keep a beady eye on us as we pass. Despite their considerable size, nobody comes to this corner of Tioman to see the monitor lizards. Nor do they come to see the large pythons which sometimes sleep in the trees across the river behind the beach. They come here to see turtles. Our little cabin is owned by the Juara Turtle Project - a local volunteer organisation protecting the rare sea turtles who choose these beaches to lay their eggs.
Our timing however doesn’t line up with turtle egg laying season. It does line up with a sight of nature which is just as rare and elusive. The flowering of the famous Rafflesia; the world’s largest flower.
The Rafflesia is a parasitic plant and grows only on a specific species of vine in some very specific parts of the world.
Every known variety is either threatened or endangered, and the plant itself is invisible until the first bud appears. It can then take 10 months for it to bloom, and once it does the flower lasts for only a few days. It is a very rare plant which flowers rarely. Hidden amongst the endless hectares of rainforest covering this island there will only be a few Rafflesia. Fortunately for us we have been put in contact with a local guide and conservationist who says he knows exactly where some are.
The first thing our guide, Mohammad, makes us do is swear not to talk to anyone else on the island about the Rafflesia.
The rarity of this flower - and its use in traditional medicines - has made it an attractive target for thieves.
Given the risks, I wonder why Mohammad would want to take us at all. At first, I assume he does it to earn a living, but as he leads us through the forest it quickly becomes clear that his real motivation is to share his enthusiasm and passion for Tioman’s amazing biodiversity. On the way through the forest he points out other amazing plants and animals including a family of Chameleons (as good as invisible to us until we get right up close) and a wild swarm of asian honey bees which ripples in warning as we pass. Alongside the bees, Mohammad warns us about the ‘wish you were dead’ plant. The sting is so excruciating that it’s been known to drive some to suicide. His description of the plant itself is so generalised that distinguishing it from any other species in this verdant green rainforest would be impossible. So I try to avoid touching anything at all.
After 30 minutes, our pace through the forest suddenly slows as we get close to our quarry. Without realising, Mohammad starts speaking in increasingly hushed tones; so fearful is he of disturbing this rare flower in its natural habitat. I smell the Rafflesia before I see them. The flower gives off a pungent smell of rotting meat; an imitation of death that some believe attracts flies for pollination. A sweeter scent however would belie the appearance of the flower. It is not a delicate light bloom of wafer-thin petals. Instead the Rafflesia appears like a TV prop taken from a 1960s Star Trek planet.
It is outlandishly three dimensional with the texture and look of styrofoam; much closer to the flesh of a puffball or fungus than a flower.
About 40cm across and without a stem or leaves, the flower looks curiously stuck-on to the bare vine. Five large petals are joined to a puffy ring (the Perogone), inside of which is a fleshy heart of small sticky tubes. It’s size and rudimental shape makes it look prehistoric as does the texturous ‘scales’ pattern imprinted across the petals. If this flower did exist in the time of the dinosaurs, then the smell and colour would no doubt signal a strong warning to anything tempted to eat it.
As we gaze and chat about the alien shape and aroma, Mohammad rejoices in our enthusiasm for this strange flower. He insists on taking photographs of us standing next to it; constantly reminding us - “don’t touch”, “don’t touch” - as if we would ever feel confident enough to interfere with something so rare.
Warmed by our shared experience, Mohammad timidly invites us back to his home in a nearby village for refreshments. Walking up the path to his house, he tells us to keep an eye out for cobras. He had spotted one yesterday - it lost its head to the blade of a shovel.
I don’t know what I was expecting from Mohammad’s home - but I had never imagined the garden of eden he has created. Centred around a large plastic house, he has cultivated the most beautiful and intriguing plants and flowers from the surrounding rainforest. Part of his collection are wonderfully sweet smelling flowers, and intricate native orchids with each petal perfect.
As we sit down with a drink, I think about what a fascinating counterpoint they are to the large smelly Rafflesia. A telling reminder - if it were needed - of just how wonderfully diverse nature can be.