Mabi David“Which species is your favorite?” I was often asked this question by the botanists I interviewed for the book Rafflesia of the Philippines, published last year by EDC. It was a question that often stumped me. To my untrained eye, they all looked the same: scary. In fact, maybe even a little ugly. To be able to tell them apart would have been a feat; to choose a favorite, a joke.But the botanists practically waxed poetic every time they talked about the flower, as if it were a cousin of the rose, which has long been the subject of many great poems. While the Rafflesia is as red, the similarities it shared with the beautiful rose stop there. To begin with, it mimics the look and smell of decomposing flesh to attract carrion flies so that it can reproduce. (I doubt the rose would stoop would such a level.) It is so strange looking that a group of mountaineers who came upon it in Antique, narrates Dr. Julie Barcelona, poked the flower with a stick to see if it would eat the stick! Having neither roots nor leaves, the Rafflesia is a parasite that is completely dependent on its host and defies the process of photosynthesis. The buds take around 1–1.5 years to grow and bloom, and majority die in the process. Those that survive and bloom begin to decay after a span of five to seven days and turn into black mush. It is the stuff of drama and suspense. It may not be the best-looking plant, but it is certainly the most interesting.
Thus, after months of research and interviews, I was captivated. I was hungry to see an actual Rafflesia, preferably R. schadenbergiana, the largest of the Philippine species, at 27 inches in diameter. (A picture shared by fellow author Dr. Julie Barcelona of a boy seated beside it for scale is both impressive and terrifying. In fact, there were superstitious beliefs surrounding the plant so that collecting it in one area required ritual offerings.) Ivy Henson of the public relations department, who was in-charge of photo research, and I would be given leads on Rafflesia populations in bloom in our forests, only to be told later that they were false leads. There were a few times when she and photographer Albert Labrador were ready to leave in pursuit of a bloom only to find the trip cancelled at the last minute. Again, false leads. When Henry Roy of ___ department and I interviewed Dr. Edwino Fernando at UPLB, he said that a population of R. manillana was in bloom but that he would tell us its location. He could take us there but only if we were blindfolded. He told us of a botany student, the last person we would expect to harm the plant, once cut off the rare bloom as souvenir.
I resigned myself to the possibility that I might never see an actual Rafflesia. After all, the Filipino botanists studying the species only come upon them accidentally and only after several days, or weeks, of being in the deep forest. I should be so lucky. Also, Rafflesias are found in primary forests, and very little of that survive now in our country.
So imagine my surprise when after my climb to the summit of Mt. Kinabalu in Sabah, Indonesia, I saw a poster saying that R. keithi was in bloom. A poster. The site, near Poring Hot Springs, was 1.5 hours away from where my friend and I were staying, our flight back to Manila was in the afternoon that same day, but I knew such a rare chance might never happen again. Despite the tight schedule, I pleaded with my companion and guides, who were mountaineers and who were already half-curious about the plant after my impromptu lecture. We were told that the poster had been put up for a couple of days earlier, which meant that the population might already be dead. Still, we decided to take our chance and sped through the highway, almost feverish with excitement.
At Poring, we found ourselves standing in front of a stall that announced, “Welcome, Viviane Rafflesia Garden: Full Bloom.” The site was far from being a manicured garden, but it was definitely not the deep forest I expected. A male guide led us through a short dirt road after paying the 20MYR viewing fee. There were signs everywhere, including a thank-you sign in six languages. The garden had been turned into an eco-tourism site, and a signage called for more efforts to ensure that the Rafflesia would be enjoyed by future generations. Narrow planks over muddy soil led us to a makeshift gate.
There, on the other side of the gate were two large, red blooms. And the first thing I said when I saw them was, “Gorgeous.” My companion must have thought I had gone crazy. In front of us were blooms as big as my torso, with “petals” (perigone lobes) that were already turning whitish-gray, as if they were getting moldy. The lobes too were in limp, heavy curls. I thought I could detect a faint stink.
Still, I couldn’t help but say, “Gorgeous,” and it went beyond physical appearance. As I sat in front of the Rafflesia, I remembered the stories that our Filipino botanists shared with me—its fascinating plant life despite the evolutionary and environmental odds stacked against it. I remembered, more importantly, the grueling work that our biologists have to do in our forests in order to study a plant that we have come to see as symbolic of the state of Philippine biodiversity—teeming with life but also very much threatened. I remembered the efforts of botanists like Dr. Domingo Madulid and Dr. Barcelona to teach the general public about Philippine plant life even as the number of botany students continued to dwindle. They, along with our biologists, would share what they know with the public—personally answering text messages from school principals, blogging, and writing newspaper columns among others—so that greater awareness would lead to deeper understanding and, consequently, love and concern for the environment. I remembered why Dr. Prescillano Zamora approached EDC, asking for help to popularize the science and tell more people about the story of Rafflesia and, in the process, Philippine biodiversity.
All these stories surrounding the Rafflesia were the reasons why I thought it was gorgeous, and yes, to me, even more than the rose. What the late Leonard Co told me in our 2009 interview was true, “Hindi mo mamahalin ang isang bagay na hindi mo naiintindihan.”
Mabi David is a freelance writer. She hopes to see an actual Philippine species of the Rafflesia in the near future.
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