The Rafflesia belongs to the family Rafflesiaceae and is one of the world’s largest flowers.  Rafflesia arnoldi, which can grow up to 150 cm in diameter, is the largest flower in the world.1 It was discovered by Sir Stamford Raffles and Dr Joseph Arnold on 19 May 1818.2

Discovery of Rafflesia by the Western world

Rafflesia arnoldi was discovered in Sumatra by an exploration party comprising chiefly Sir Stamford Raffles, his wife Lady Sophia Raffles, and his doctor and naturalist Dr Joseph Arnold at Pulau Lebar on the Manna River on either 19 or 20 May 1818.3  

According to an account by Dr Arnold in his letter to Dawson Turner, a close friend of his, a local servant had first discovered a very large flower and led Arnold to it. Arnold thus became the first person from the exploration party to see the Rafflesia. The flower was large, measuring a full yard across. Dr Arnold described seeing “a swarm of flies hovering over” the flower and laying their eggs in it, and it produced “precisely the smell of tainted beef”. He proceeded to remove the flower and sent the specimen back to Manna, but the specimen was later found to have turned brown and infested with maggots. In addition, he also made a coloured drawing of the flower.4

Unfortunately, Arnold passed away shortly after on 26 July 1818 from a fever he contracted while in Sumatra.5 The discovery was announced by Raffles in his letter to Sir Joseph Banks, President of the Royal Society,6 on 13 August 1818. The letter also mentioned Arnold’s death earlier in July 1818.7 Arnold’s drawing and specimens were then brought by naturalist Dr Thomas Horsfield8 to England and came into the hands of Robert Brown, a highly-respected naturalist9 in England.10

Robert Brown wrote a paper titled “An Account of a New Genus of Plants, Named Rafflesia” and read it to the Linnean Society of London in 1820. In the paper, he named the plant Rafflesia arnoldi. He had proposed to name the genus Rafflesia in honour of Raffles, who was the sponsor of the exploration trip and a man of high repute in the English scientific scene,11 and the species arnoldi after Joseph Arnold.12 Before this, naturalist William Jack, who was Arnold’s replacement, had unofficially named the plant Rafflesia titan in the third paper in his Descriptions of Malayan Plants.13 For his paper, Brown had referenced Arnold’s notes, the drawings made by him and Raffles and his specimens in order to describe the plant. The paper also featured the first published illustrated sections of the flower by Francis Bauer.14 At that time, the discovery of the flower was greeted with much excitement in Europe.15

Two decades earlier, sightings of another species of Rafflesia in Java was reported by Louis Auguste Deschamp, a French surgeon-naturalist. He was recognised as the first from the West to find and describe the Rafflesia. He had sailed to Java in March 1794 and carried out nature explorations, when he discovered a specimen, speculated to be Rafflesia patma, in 1797. However, his notes and specimens were confiscated when the ship he was sailing in was taken by the British Navy on his way back to France in 1803, and his material only reappeared many years later.16

The Rafflesia is found in the tropical rainforests of Borneo, Sumatra, Java, Peninsular Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines. It occurs only in certain habitats as a parasite on the Tetrastigma species of woody vines.17 It is a very rare flower, difficult to reproduce in laboratories and its dried specimen is difficult to preserve. The Rafflesia can measure between 36 to 42 inches in diameter and weigh between 9 to 12 kg.18

Since all the plants of this family are parasitic, they do not have any roots, stems or leaves and lack chlorophyll. Individual flowers or buds simply sprout on the species of Tetrastigma woody vines. Some flowers are monoecius, with both sexes in the same flower.19

Usage and potential
Prior to the discovery and introduction of this flower to the western world, the indigenous communities who had known about its presence were using the Rafflesia for medicinal purposes. Rafflesia buds were used by women to stop internal bleeding and shrink the womb after childbirth.20 In particular, it was used as a love-potion and to hasten childbirth by the Sakai tribes in Malaya, and as an aphrodisiac and astringent by “high-born” women in Java.21 In spite of its various uses, the chemical composition of Rafflesia flowers has not been extensively analysed yet. However, preliminary phytochemical screening has showed no evidence of the flowers’ medicinal properties. On the contrary, the buds and flowers have a high content of tannin and phenols that can be toxic when taken in large quantities.22

In Thailand, young buds of the flower are eaten as a delicacy.

In Sabah, Malaysia, the Rafflesia was considered a flower of spirits or a taboo flower because of its foul smell and gigantic size. In Thailand, the flowers were believed to have mystical powers that could help one attain nirvana.23 In 1990, the Rafflesia was also designated as one of the three national flowers of Indonesia.24 The number of Rafflesia dwindled after its use as herbal medicine became a fad in the 2000s, leading to the Orang Asli harvesting the flowers and selling them to shops and middlemen.25 The Rafflesia was also threatened by loss of habitat arising from deforestation.26 To solve the problem, a scheme was started in Malaysia to train indigenous groups to become custodians and guides for ecotours instead.27

It was reported in 1987 that the herbarium in the Singapore Botanic Gardens held two dried specimens of the Rafflesia – Rafflesia hasseltii and Rafflesia tuan-mudae.28 Two years before, in 1985, it had attempted to grow the Rafflesia in Singapore by inoculating some seeds into its host vine Tetrastigma lanceolarium, which was grown at the Botanic Gardens on the request of Dr Willem Meijer, an expert on the Rafflesia. The experiment did not seem to have borne fruit as there were no further reports on it.29 In 2019, the National Heritage Board and National Parks Board launched the BalikSG app which used augmented reality to show users plants and animals named by or after Raffles at the new Raffles Garden in Fort Canning Park. One of the plants featured in the app was the Rafflesia arnoldi.30

Variant names

Common name: Rafflesia.
Other names: Bunga patma,31 Yak-yak, Patma raksasa, Patma kemubut, Krubut, Pakma (Sarawak), Kukuanga (Sabah), Wusak-tombuakar (Tambunan), Ambun ambun, Kemubut (Sumatra), Kerubut,32 Petimun Sikinlili (Sumatra).33
Other common names: Devil’s betel box, sun toadstool, stinking corpse lily.34

Species of Rafflesia
As of 2001, the species of Rafflesia with their scientific names, years and places of discovery were listed as follows:

1821Rafflesia arnoldi, Sumatra, Borneo.
1825Rafflesia patma, Sumatra, Java.
1841Rafflesia manillana, Leyte Island, Philippines.
1850Rafflesia rochussenii, Sumatra, Java.
1868Rafflesia tuan-mudae, Borneo.
1879Rafflesia hasseltii, Sumatra.
1884Rafflesia schadenbergiana, Mindanao, Philippines
1910Rafflesia cantleyi, Peninsular Malaysia
1918Rafflesia borneensis, Borneo.
1918Rafflesia ciliata, Borneo.
1918Rafflesia witkampii, Borneo.
1984Rafflesia gadutensis, Sumatra.
1984Rafflesia keithii, Borneo.
1984Rafflesia kerrii, Thailand and Peninsular Malaysia.
1984Rafflesia micropylora, Sumatra.
1984Rafflesia pricei, Borneo.
1989Rafflesia tengku-adlinii, Borneo.35

Naidu Ratnala Thulaja

1. Jamili Nais, Rafflesia of the World (Malaysia: Sabah Parks, 2001), 14 (Call no. RSEA q583.2095953 JAM); “Exotic & Endangered,” Straits Times, 1 January 2011, 7 (From NewspaperSG); Robert Brown, An Account of a New Genus of Plants, Named Rafflesia (London: Richard and Arthur Taylor, 1821)  
2. Nais, Rafflesia of the World, 27.
3. John Bastin, Sir Stamford Raffles and Some of His Friends and Contemporaries: A Memoir of the Founder of Singapore (Singapore: World Scientific Publishing, 2019), 240–41. (Call no. RSING 959.5703092 BAS-[HIS])
4. Bastin, Sir Stamford Raffles and Some of His Friends and Contemporaries, 240–41; John Bastin, Dr Joseph Arnold and the Discovery of Rafflesia Arnoldi in West Sumatra in 1818 (London: Society for the Bibliography of Natural History, 1973), 334. (Call no. RCLOS 583.2 BAS-[JSB])
5. Bastin, Sir Stamford Raffles and Some of His Friends and Contemporaries, 245.
6. Bastin, Sir Stamford Raffles and Some of His Friends and Contemporaries, 179, 245.
7. Bastin, Dr Joseph Arnold and the Discovery of Rafflesia Arnoldi, 335; Brown, Account of a New Genus of Plants.
8. Bastin, Sir Stamford Raffles and Some of His Friends and Contemporaries, 179, 248.
9. Bastin, Sir Stamford Raffles and Some of His Friends and Contemporaries, 219–20.
10. Brown, Account of a New Genus of Plant.
11. T. P. Bernard, “Rafflesia in the Natural and Imperial Imagination,” in The East India Company and the Natural World, ed., Vinita Damodaran, Anna Winterbottom and Alan Lester (Houndsmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), 147. (Call no. RSEA 508.54 EAS)
12. Brown, Account of a New Genus of Plant; John Bastin, “Sir Stamford Raffles and the Study of Natural History in Penang, Singapore and Indonesia,” Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society 63, no. 2 (259) (1990): 1–25. (From JSTOR via NLB’s eResources website) 
13. Bastin, Sir Stamford Raffles and Some of His Friends and Contemporaries, 283, 290.
14. H. J. Noltie, Raffles’ Ark Redrawn: Natural History Drawings from the Collection of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles (London: The British Library and Edinburgh: The Royal Botanic Garden, 2009), 34–35, 94. (Call no. RSING 508.0222 NOL)
15. Bastin, “Sir Stamford Raffles and the Study of Natural History,” 1–25.
16. Bernard, “Rafflesia in the Natural and Imperial Imagination,” 149; Nais, Rafflesia of the World, 23–24.
17. Kamarudin Mat Salleh, Rafflesia: Magnificent Flower of Sabah (Kota Kinabalu: Borneo Pub. Co., 1991), 6–7. (Call no. RSEA 581.5249 KAM)
18. Nais, Rafflesia of the World, 14.
19. Nais, Rafflesia of the World, 1.
20. Nais, Rafflesia of the World, 30.
21. “Found—A Freak Flower,” Straits Times, 12 September 1957, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
22. Nais, Rafflesia of the World, 31.
23. Nais, Rafflesia of the World, 30.
24. “National Flower Rafflesia,” Straits Times, 8 June 1990, 21. (From NewspaperSG)
25. “Rafflesia May Fall Prey to Herbal Fad,” Straits Times, 28 September 2004, 7; “Rare Flowers Plucked and Sold for $1.45,” Straits Times, 14 December 2001, 31. (From NewspaperSG)
26. Nais, Rafflesia of the World, 193.
27. “Blooms Which are the Bud of Foul Smells,” New Paper, 15 November 2009, 20. (From NewspaperSG)
28. “Where Flowers in the region are Preserved,” Straits Times, 21 July 1987, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
29. Irene Hoe, “Bid to Grow Giant Bloom Here,” Straits Times, 10 November 1985, 10. (From NewspaperSG)
30. Neo Rong Wei, “Nine Gardens Open at Fort Canning Park; Augmented Reality App Lets Visitors Learn History Behind Them,” Today, 27 May 2019.  (From NewspaperSG)
31. R. E. Holttum, “The Jungle's Largest Flower: Bunga Pakma,” Straits Times, 3 October 1950, 6; “A Flower that Is on the Verge of Extinction,” Straits Times, 19 March 1985, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
32. H. N. Ridley, The Flora of the Malay Peninsula, vol. 3 (London: L. Reeve & Co., Ltd, 1967), 19 (Call no. RSING 581.9595 RID); H. N. Ridley and C. Curtis, “Malay Plant Names,” Journal of the Straits Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society no. 38 (July 1902): 106. (From JSTOR via NLB’s eResources website)
33. Bernard, “Rafflesia in the Natural and Imperial Imagination,” 156.
34. Nais, Rafflesia of the World, 31.
35. Nais, Rafflesia of the World, 27–28.

The information in this article is valid as at December 2020 and correct as far as we can ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.