“A striking work of nature”: the search for a rare flower in the jungle of the Philippines | Plants

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It was after traveling 6,600 miles and struggling through the tropical obstacle course of the Luzon rainforest that Chris Thorogood laid eyes on the rare and extraordinary flower that ignited his childhood imagination 30 years ago. .

Thorogood, 38, last month became the first Westerner to see Rafflesia banaoana – an otherworldly red-spotted species that spans half a meter in diameter – in an experience that brought him to tears .

“It’s hard to put this feeling into words,” he said on Sunday. “It’s a combination of the effort of the trek, which is quite intense, but also a feeling of sharing a moment with something ephemeral, rare, and a striking work of nature that you don’t see anywhere. elsewhere. It’s kind of heartbreaking to sit with something like that.

Rafflesia banaoana is the rarest and most elusive of the genus named after Sir Stamford Raffles, the founder of modern Singapore. The flowers are only found in the deep tropical forests of the island of Luzon in the Philippines.

Thorogood, the assistant director of the Oxford Botanic Garden and Arboretum, describes it as “the most bizarre plant in the world”.

The botanist is quick to point out that although he is the first Westerner to set eyes on the Rafflesia, the experience would not have been possible without the work of Pastor Malabrigo Jr and Adriane Tobias, of the University of the Philippines, the only two other botanists to have seen the flower.

Chris Thorogood with “the weirdest plant in the world”. Photography: Dr. Chris Thorogood

The trio were granted permission to enter the confines of the rainforest by the indigenous Banao community, who own the land and escorted them to the flower by carving a trail through the dense and hostile vegetation.

By the time they reached the Rafflesia, Thorogood’s arms were covered in leech blood and he was nursing a plant sting that “looked like someone was pouring boiling water” on his skin.

The two-week expedition was the culmination of years of planning, but its genesis can be traced back to Thorogood’s childhood bedroom in Chelmsford, Essex. From the age of eight, he marveled at photographs of exotic species of rare flowers in the most remote corners of the planet.

“There were these extraordinary photographs of these flowers in the jungle somewhere that seemed so remote, inaccessible and foreign to me, as a child, having never really traveled very far,” he said.

“It’s almost as if they were a magnet on the other side of the globe that urges me to go see them. I vividly remember as a child being fascinated by these photographs in books of these otherworldly botanical puzzles. I think I subconsciously made my plans as I was going to make it my life’s work to go see them.

Rafflesias can reach 1.5 meters in diameter and weigh 10 kg, making them the largest flowers in the world. There are 13 species of Rafflesia in the Philippines and they remain a mystery to the scientific world.

Thorogood, the author of a book called Weird Plants, said understanding rare species is key to better protecting them.

“Two out of three plant species in the world are alarmingly threatened with extinction, and we are losing plant species perhaps faster than we can describe and discover them,” he said. “We can’t preserve or protect something if we don’t know it exists.”

As for his next expedition, Thorogood remains silent: “With around 400,000 different plants, there is a bewildering diversity of plants. It is therefore very difficult to reduce it to one or two. But there will be plenty of plants waiting for me, I’m sure.

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