Ever since I read about Rafflesia in science books as a child, I’ve been fascinated by this strange and uncommon genus of parasitic plants found only in Southeast Asia. Over the years, I’ve hiked to see different Rafflesia species in the rainforests of the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia.
Lacking leaves, stems and roots, these alien-looking plants infect and thrive within woody jungle vines. It takes several months for their cabbage-like buds to mature, before bursting open into vibrant, leathery blooms that last for only a few days. Some species produce the world’s largest single flowers, which can exceed a meter in diameter and emit a foul odor to attract flies and other pollinators.
In the Philippines, at least 13 species have been discovered by science – all of them endemic to the country! Over the years, I’ve seen a number of local species in the wild: R. speciosa and R. lobata in Antique, R. lagascae in Laguna, and R. mira in Davao de Oro. The largest of the Philippine species, Rafflesia schadenbergiana, has been on my bucket list for a decade. Last weekend, I finally got to see this rare and majestic species in full bloom at a newly discovered site in Bukidnon province. Reaching 80 centimeters in diameter, its flowers are among the largest in the Rafflesia genus.
Endemic to Mindanao island, Rafflesia schadenbergiana was first collected near Mount Apo (the tallest peak in the Philippines) in 1882 by German chemist, ethnographer, and natural history enthusiast Alexander Schadenberg – after whom the species was named – and his friend Otto Koch. It was not recorded thereafter for more than a century and was presumed extinct. In 1994, R. schadenbergiana buds were rediscovered in South Cotabato and a flowering population was finally documented in Baungon, Bukidnon in 2007. Since then, a few more sites were uncovered within Mount Kitanglad Range Natural Park, an ASEAN Heritage Park in Bukidnon Province.
Three months ago, the third and newest site in Lantapan municipality was discovered by local children deep within the upland forests of Barangay Alanib. Last weekend, I had the privilege of being the very first tourist to visit the area since its discovery last May, accompanied by renowned Talaandig mountain guide Emiliano “Blacky” Lumiston and village leader Zaldy Gabucan, who promptly secured the site to protect the buds and the host vines. This is the second site found in the barangay. Exact locations are withheld in this article to help safeguard the sites.
From the trailhead, it took nearly two hours to reach the R. schadenbergiana site, passing by farmlands then tracing a boulder-strewn creek, which we had to traverse five times through a densely forested gully. The site is located on a steep slope, sheltered by giant ferns, overlooking the waterway with an elevation of more than 1,200 masl. Rickety bamboo ladders and a platform were soon installed after the discovery to prevent visitors from trampling on the infected Tetrastigma vines.
Upon reaching the Rafflesia site, we rejoiced to find a R. schadenbergiana flower in full bloom on its second day of flowering. Its faint putrid odor had attracted a swarm of flies, small beetles, and other insects. Zaldy carefully noted its diameter with a piece of plastic straw, which we later measured to be 75 centimeters. Scattered next to the magnificent blossom were 15 buds of various sizes attached to the vines on the forest floor.
A decomposing flower, which bloomed last month, sat higher up on the slope, next to a large bud posed to bloom probably within a few weeks. Next to it were some one-peso coins left behind by Talaandig villagers as an offering to appease supernatural beings in the forest. The Talaandig are one of the lumad (indigenous peoples) of Bukidnon. According to Blacky, who is Talaandig, superstitious locals believe that Rafflesia belong to malignant entities called busáw, hence the local name of the plant bulak hubusáw.
This was the most Rafflesia buds I’ve seen in a single site by far. We found several mature buds, which will hopefully successively bloom in the coming months. This is perhaps the most prolific cluster of R. schadenbergiana discovered thus far. It was Blacky’s first time at the site, and he was also thrilled by the size of the colony. We spent two hours at the site, ogling at the natural spectacle, unearthing buried buds, and discussing how to preserve the area.
I was thrilled to see the Philippines’ largest flower up close and finally tick off a special Rafflesia on my list. Through carefully managed ecotourism, I hope this precious site will be well protected by the local community to provide generations of researchers and nature-lovers a better opportunity to study and admire one of the most incredible plants in the world, a testament to the astounding biodiversity one can find in the country.
Rafflesia Viewing Guidelines
- Always visit Rafflesia sites with a trained local guide.
- Approach with utmost care to prevent trampling on flowers, buds and host vines.
- Rafflesias are sensitive, so do resist the urge to touch them!
- Help protect their habitat by adhering to Leave No Trace principles.
How to Get There
The nearest airport from Bukidnon is Laguindingan Airport, 46 km west of Cagayan de Oro City.
From Cagayan de Oro City, take a bus from Agora Bus Terminal to Malaybalay Bus Terminal (2.5 hours, ₱210) or Aglayan Crossing, where you can transfer to a jeepney to Lantapan (₱80). From Lantapan town, hire a bao-bao (autorickshaw) or habal-habal (motorcycle taxi) to take you to the trailhead of Rafflesia sites.
To check blooming schedules and arrange hikes to the Rafflesia sites in Lantapan, contact purok president Zaldy Gabucan of Barangay Alanib at +63 9755420889 or mountain guide Emiliano “Blacky” Lumiston of Cinchona Forest Reserve, Barangay Kaatuan at +63 9914309791 or +63 9751025934. Their guiding fees are ₱500 and ₱1000 per group per day, respectively.
Where to Stay
The Rafflesia sites of Lantapan can be visited as a day trip from Malaybalay City, Bukidnon, where you can find hotels and resorts. There’s also basic lodging in Lantapan town. Search for accommodations and check room availability here.
If you wish to stay close to nature, I highly recommended spending a few nights at Cinchona Forest Reserve in Brgy. Kaatuan, Lantapan (₱250 per person). Aside from hiking to see Rafflesia, it’s an excellent home base to go birdwatching and spot endemic wildlife like the Mindanao flying squirrel and Philippine eagle in Mount Kitanglad Range Natural Park. For inquiries, contact Blacky Lumiston (see contact numbers above).