Rafflesia are fascinating, not just because they’re some of the world’s largest flowers but because of their botanical properties: they have no stems, leaves or roots. Instead, they act as parasites, latching on vines and insinuating a structure called haustorium to absorb water and nutrients. Only the flower is visible — and what a flower! The red, saucer-like blooms have captured the popular imagination, finding their way in anime as Pokemon incarnations (Vileplume! Venosaur!) and in science textbooks as exemplars of the world’s biodiversity.
Despite the widespread awareness of the rafflesia, however, many Filipinos do not know that this rare flower can be found in the Philippines — and they’re actually endemic to the country, with a number of species found all over the archipelago — from the gigantic Rafflesia schadenbergianain Mindanao that reaches close to a meter to the various species found in Sierra Madre.
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Why is it this case? Perhaps because, despite the growing popularity of outdoor recreation over the past decade, and despite the efforts of our conservationists, most Filipinos don’t really have a personal relationship with the environment, and natural beauty is not something we value in its detail - i.e. the flora and fauna, not just the overall view. Even hikers mostly seek the summit, losing sight of the wonders on the trail. The fact that the rafflesia is extremely rare and its blooms last for only a few days add to its elusive nature.
In Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand — the three other countries where rafflesia are found — the flowers are just as rare, but what has made a difference are the ways in which their government officials have elevated it as a national or local symbol, contributing to its prominence, rendering it visible in their public consciousness. People’s familiarity with the flower has been boosted by parks that showcase the flower while allowing scientists to do research on its biology.
After missing it in Mt. Labo in Camarines Norte, I was very fortunate to see a rafflesia in Mt. Napulak, Igbaras, Iloilo a few years ago, one the size of a large plate. After that sighting, my next hope was to see one in Mt. Makiling, because, despite having climbed It countless times since I was a kid, I’ve actually never spotted the local rafflesia (Rafflesia panchoana), relatively small but no less fascinating species, in Makiling.
Thus I consider myself really lucky to spot not just one or two, but several, of the elusive flower when I climbed Mt. Makiling in March 31 this year. I was doing a traverse from Sto. Tomas to Los Baños —my favored route as it passes through rock formations on the Sto. Tomas side before reaching the two highest peaks in the mountain. Normally, on the descent to Los Baños my thoughts would dwell on where to have lunch among LB’s restaurants, but this time the rafflesia would captivate our minds.
Some of them were right along the trail, others were just a few meters away. Despite their salad bowl size and supposedly strong odor (hence the local name, malaboo, which literally means ‘like the smell of rotten flesh’), rafflesia are not easy to detect if you’re not looking for it, which makes me wonder: What else am I not seeing, orsensing, when I am climbing the mountain? Birds, insects, rare plants, mushrooms — all of them can be seen, heard, or even smelled on the trail, and once we pay attention to them, the mountains become even more alive.
I hope many people come to recognize the beauty that lies within our mountains beyond the scenic views, and that it leads to appreciation, which in turn leads to awareness and advocacy. I also hope that the government will invest more effort in rendering our native flora visible —not just the rafflesia but the pitcher plants, and even the more common but no less taken-for-granted blossoms of the narra and the molave — to say nothing of our endangered, equally fascinating fauna. They add another layer to the beauty of our forests, hopefully making (more) people realise what’s at stake in environmental protection.
Of course, beyond its implications to conservation, it’s also fascinating — at a personal level — to see rare flowers (Just don’t touch, let alone take them, in keeping with the Leave No Trace principles). Not all of us can be botanists or forest scientists but in the mountains we can still live out our exploratory fantasies and our animé dreams. I do not know when I’ll see the rafflesia again —but I will keep climbing mountains with my eyes wide open — and my senses fully engaged to whatever lies ahead of me on our country’s beautiful trails.
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