Royal Belum Rainforest (Malaysia)


guide showing us the variety of plants and herbs collected for research

Treasures may not always be there glistening for all to see. The real treasures are always hidden and it takes a while to find. After our boat ride round the lake and the trek to the salt lick, we ended up at another Orang Jahai village, where we were introduced to the head of the village. He was happy to see our guide for he had lots of treasures for him. We were a little puzzled as to what he was to do next. The headman dragged out a bulging gunnysack from under the bamboo hut and turned the sack inside out.

‘Your loot’, he said. The guide was delighted. Tied up in neat bundles, were all sorts of vegetation harvested from the area. These plants looked pretty ordinary to us. Some lianas, several types of roots, leaves, bulbs…looked like someone had just cleared his garden of weeds. These, we were told, each contained powers of healing. The plants were medicinal herbs that have been collected and used by the orang asli for generations. All types of ailments could be ‘fixed’. Even love potions can be arranged…with a dash of ‘cenuai’ to complete the potion. Not to mention the tongkat ali and the rafflesia buds.

We were transfixed. We were awed. We were reduced to mere goggled-eyed schoolgirlies...

But what of the Rafflesia?

These are rafflesia buds, becoming extremely rare as they are harvested by the orang asli and sold to villages for a mere few ringgit. The locals boil it to remedy the womb.

The Rafflesia is a strange plant…. the fact that when it is in bloom, it stinks to high heaven, gives enough weight . Unlike other plants, there are no leaves to process carbon dioxide and sunshine into sugar and oxygen.

There are no roots to soak up water and minerals from the earth to manufacture into proteins. What is found are long strands of tissue-like filaments that penetrate the vines of the host plant. Host plant? Well, yes…. Rafflesia is a parasite which means that it doesn’t need to make its own nutrients. It just sucks the nutrient out of its host which is , another plant. The large fleshy flower is what we usually notice. This is the flower’s sexual organ, sometimes found sitting on an overhead vine or usually languishing in the damp forest floor below. The reddish brown colour of the petals, sprinkled with white freckles exudes a most unpleasant stench, similar to rotting flesh or carrion. Some believe that the stench attracts flies and other insects which help disperse its seeds. Others believe that large animals could be agents for this seed dispersal. In order for the seed to germinate, it was found that the vine of the host plant must be damaged in some way so that the filaments of the seed may infiltrate successfully. The damage to the host vines could be made by trampling hoofs of large animals. The seeds adhere to the passing animals’ hoofs and are transported to other places where they can find host plants to attach to. This cannot be disproved or proved. However, it is found that the flowers most often occur in big game areas and less in other areas.

Sir Stamford Raffles. photo courtesy of arkib negara malaysia

There is even more to tell of its ‘discovery’ and its claim to fame as the largest flower on earth. In the year 1818, Sir Stamford Raffles was posted as Governor to Bencoolen in Sumatra which was then, the administrative centre for the British East India Company for Western Sumatra. Raffles’ interest in natural sciences was insatiable. A respected and popular member of the Royal Society in London, Raffles arranged and persuaded a fellow society member - Dr.Joseph Arnold to accompany him on an expedition into the interiors of Sumatra. It was on one of these expeditions that they stumbled on a discovery which was to puzzle botanists for a long time. Unfortunately, Dr Arnold died too soon of jungle fever, before presenting the report to the society. The new found flower was given the scientific name, 'Rafflesia arnoldii' ,in honour of the two gentlemen.

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