Threat of extinction looms large for world's flowering giants

Paul Simons on the monster blooms whose plight has failed to reach the public eye
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The Independent Online
The flowering of the giant 5ft titan arum last week at Kew Gardens attracted world attention, but in its wild home on the island of Sumatra, in Indonesia, the plant is under threat. The monster bloom is often cut down by rubber tappers who think - wrongly - that it attracts malarial mosquitoes. Its 110lb underground stems are dug up for the Japanese, who use them as a starchy food.

Even though the plant is not rare yet, its blooms are increasingly difficult to find. But another Sumatran monster, Rafflesia arnoldii, which claims the title of largest flower in the world, is in serious danger, as are others among the world's giant plants.

Rafflesia is a botanical freak: it has no leaves or stem, and spends almost all its life inside a jungle liana, sucking out its juices with tiny filaments. Only the flower appears outside, growing into a monstrous 3ft wide red and white bucket, flanked by five fat lips. By its nature the plant is not easy to find, flowering for only a few days every five years or so, but it is becoming extremely rare as its native rainforests are cleared. It is impossible to cultivate, and is now clinging on in three small Indonesian national parks.

Floral giants are the plant equivalent of the blue whale or the elephant. But, unlike big animals, big plants attract very little international efforts to conserve them. "People can identify with cuddly animals," said Noel McGough, conservation officer at Kew Gardens, "but it's difficult to empathise with a big cactus or a rude-smelling flower."

The last surviving example of Britain's largest native orchid, the sumptuous lady's slipper orchid, which was picked into oblivion by the Victorians, is guarded 24 hours a day. Many other large flowers or plants may soon be equally rare, such as Puya raimondii, a 15ft spear-shaped bloom growing in the Peruvian Andes, which is vulnerable because farmers are burning it down. The metallic-looking giant silversword of Hawaii was almost eaten to extinction by wild goats, originally introduced by Captain Cook and other Westerners.

The rat-catching pitcher plant of Borneo, Nepenthes rajah, is being threatened by fanatical carnivorous plant collectors, and the giant candelabra cactus, popular in John Wayne movies, is being shot to pieces by gun enthusiasts in the south-west US. Even American redwoods - the tallest plants in the world - are under threat from loggers.

"These unique plants bring the plight of threatened habitats to the attention of the public," said Mike Maunder, head of conservation projects at Kew Gardens. But apart from the most infrequent of exceptions, such as the titan arum, they will never attract as much interest as animals. If they did they would be far safer.