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Monday, January 9, 2012

THE CORPSE FLOWER - WORLD'S LARGEST KNOWN FLOWER: HISTORY AND USES OF RAFFLESIA ARNOLDII


THE CORPSE FLOWER, RAFFLESIA ARNOLDII 
The Corpse flower is so named because its scent is reminiscent of that of rotting meat, which attracts the carrion flies that pollinate it in its natural habitat in the tropical rainforests of Sumatra and Borneo. It is a weird plant as it is rootless, stemless leafless and nonphytosynthetic. There was some debate as to whether it was in fact a flower of a fungus and after having its DNA sequenced it was still up for debate. It has been placed in the Euphorbiaceae family- the spurge family of plants along with poinsettia, the castor bean tree and the yucca or cassava, although it is perhaps better placed in its own unique family of Rafflesiaceae along with the other twelve known plants in the same genus.
  The plant is a parasite which grows in Tetrastigma leucostaphyllum a vine which is related to that of the grape. Successful pollination of the flowers is rare and they only open for about five days. The good news is that because of ecotourism and the financial benefits the plant brings to local inhabitants, it is protected by them, but the bad news is that the human disturbance caused by avid sight-seers is causing fewer flowers to bloom in the areas in which they grow. The flowers can measure a metre across and the largest ones can weigh up to 15 pounds which is approximately seven kilos. It is the largest known single flower in the world, which is why it attracts so much attention. The other flowers in the genus are smaller.
  The corpse flower is the symbol of Borneo and figures on stamps and tourist items. All the species in the genus are either threatened or endangered species because of loss of habitat. In traditional medicine the flower buds of this plant are used as aphrodisiacs and to bring pain relief during and after childbirth.
  It is believed that they have not been successfully cultivated outside their native habitat unless the vine in which they grow has been transplanted, although there have been several efforts to cultivate them.
  The first Westerner to have discovered and made notes of this genus was a French explorer Louis Auguste Deschamps (1765-1842). He was captured by the British on his return voyage to France in 1798, when Britain and France were at war. His notes were confiscated and were only rediscovered in the National History Museum, London, in 1954.
  In the meantime the British botanist, Joseph Arnold (1782-1818) and the famous Sir Thomas Stamford Bingley Raffles (1781-1826), who founded modern Singapore, came across the species when one was found by a Malay servant of theirs in Sumatra. Shortly after the find Arnold died of a fever, and Lady Raffles had suggested the plant be named after him. In the event, it was named after both men when it was officially described in 1821.
  The fruit which appears after the flowers have withered is food for ground squirrels and tree shrews which inhabit the rainforests.
  J. Hunt Cooke penned these lines after seeing a wax model of this flower at Kew Gardens, London, in 1877.
    “What strange gigantic flower is here
      That shows its lonesome pallid face
      Where neither stems nor leaves appear.”
A fitting description of this flower, one feels.
  

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