Malaysian Borneo

After one of the coolest summers on record accompanied by too many complaints about plants not blooming and tomatoes not ripening due to a lack of sunshine, I thought, forget it, I’m taking off for somewhere a little warmer — Borneo. 

To be truthful, the trip was planned long before I felt any need for a change in weather, but I certainly found the sun and warm temperatures — and acres of blooming bougainvillea, frangipani, and orchids, orchids, and even more orchids. 

It was a lovely trip, plus any expectations I might have had before embarking were exceeded when I had the amazing good fortune, purely by chance, to see the largest flower in the world in bloom.

Mount Kinabalu
I was on an air conditioned bus travelling a mountain highway near Mount Kinabalu in the east Malaysian state of Sabah, when the driver jammed on the brakes and swerved onto the shoulder of the road. He’d spotted the hand painted sign at the side of the road — a picture of a flower with the words “Rafflesia in bloom”. 

We piled out of the bus into a steam bath wondering what the fuss was about. I can honestly say that I didn’t know much about Rafflesia, but the locals sure knew. As soon as they’d found it, up when the sign and out went the cash box. And who can blame them. In fact it’s encouraged as a means to protect this endangered species. I paid my thirty ringgits (about ten dollars), and stepped onto the trail through the forest. Fortunately, it was only a short walk along a freshly trampled track and there it was, the extremely rare Rafflesia arnoldii, protected by a hastily erected bamboo fence.

Rafflesia
And what a curious plant it is, only occurring in the rainforests of Sumatra and Borneo. As a visitor to the country, the chances of actually seeing one in bloom are rare — I only saw one roadside sign the whole trip. In addition to being rare, it takes months for the bud to form, poking its way up through the forest floor to bloom for only a few days, producing a flower as much as a meter in diameter and weighing as much as 11 Kg. (my plant wasn’t a huge specimen, maybe half a meter across, but enough to impress me).

It’s a brown speckled plant and looks a little like a fungus, but it is a parasitic, vascular plant with a distinct fragrance. Believe me; it isn’t called the corpse flower for nothing — not to be confused with that other corpse flower, the Titum arum, which is a larger plant, but it doesn’t rank with Guinness as the largest flower because the arum is composed of multiple florets, rather than a single bloom. The carrion odour emitted by the Rafflesia attracts the flies that provide pollination duties, resulting in a single seed.

Rothschild orchid
After taking pictures I boarded the bus and continued our journey to the botanical garden in Kinabalu National Park, where another fortuitous surprise awaited. The garden is an orchid lover’s delight, with too many in bloom to mention, but one in particular I must: The Rothschild orchid (Paphiopedilum rothschildianum). It’s an orchid rarely seen outside its native habitat, also the most expensive — if you were to dare purchase a plant (smugglers are jailed).

This solitary specimen lay behind a chain link fence, out of reach of drooling fans. It’s found only on the slopes of Mount Kinabalu, one of the world’s most important biological sites, home to 5,000 to 6,000 plant species. Unfortunately, I had to leave without seeing them all, but on the return to the city of Kota Kinabalu, the actual mountain peak appeared briefly from behind the ever present clouds, yet another gift from an amazing country. It’s been quite a summer.

First published Waterloo Region Record September 2009
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