Story and Photographs by Corrado Mariani
Rafflesia is a plant with no leaves, no roots, no stem and is the biggest flower in the world.
"It is perhaps the largest and most magnificent flower" was how Sir Stamford Raffles described his discovery in 1818 of Rafflesia, named after himself.
This jungle parasite of south-east Asia holds the all-time record-breaking bloom of 106.7 centimetres (3 ft 6 in) diameter and 11 kilograms (24 lb) weight, with petal-like lobes.
It is one of the rarest plants in the world and on the verge of extinction.
I was in Khao Sok National Park in Thailand searching wild elephants and I decided to dedicate a couple of days to find Rafflesia in the jungle with my guide.
This is a photo diary of those days.
Khao Sok National Park is one of the most beautiful place i've been. It’s constantly rated as one of the best parks in Thailand, with amazing trekking, camping, cooling rivers, beautiful lake, fauna, flora and biodiversity. The park consists of a thick native rainforest, waterfalls, majestic limestone cliffs and an island stubbed lake.
Rafflesia looks like a pot, flanked by five lurid red-brick and spotted cream 'petals,' advertising a warm welcome to carrion flies hungry for detritus. Yet the plant is now hanging on to a precarious existence in a few pockets of Sumatra, Borneo, Thailand and the Philippines, struggling to survive against marauding humans.
Everything seems stacked against Rafflesia. First, its seeds are difficult to germinate. Then it has gambled its life entirely on parasitising just one sort of vine. This is a dangerously cavalier approach to life, because without the vine it's dead.
Having gorged itself on the immoral earnings of parasitism for a few years, the plant eventually breaks out as a flower bud, swells up over several months, and then bursts into flower. But most of the flower buds die before opening, and even in bloom Rafflesia is fighting the clock. Because the flower only lasts a few days, it has to mate quickly with a nearby flower of the opposite sex. The trouble is, the male and female flowers are now so rare that it's a miracle to find a couple ready to cross-pollinate each other.
There are at least 13 species of Rafflesia, but two of them have already been unsighted since the Second World War and are presumed extinct, and the record-holding Rafflesia arnoldii is facing extinction. To make matters worse, no one has ever cultivated Rafflesia in a garden or laboratory.