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6 May 2024updated 07 May 2024 9:44am

Chris Thorogood’s quest to save the world’s largest flower

The botanist on flower-hunting in remote rainforests and why toads make charming pets.

By Sophie McBain

For most of its lifespan, rafflesia, the world’s largest flower, exists only as an endophyte, a string of cells hidden inside a host vine. It takes several years for a conker-like bud to burst out of the vine, and this bud will grow for months before unfurling into its final form and then dying within days. The largest of all, the speckled, rust-red rafflesia arnoldii can span a metre, with thick, rubbery petals and a putrid, corpse-like smell.

Rafflesia is an outlier in the natural world, a parasitic plant that does not photosynthesise, with no roots or leaves or stems. Genetic analysis has revealed that, surprisingly, one of its closest relatives is the Christmas pot plant, poinsettia. “If we can allow a plant a personality, rafflesia has it in spades,” said Chris Thorogood, a University of Oxford botanist, and a man who definitely allows plants personality.

Thorogood’s work takes him on weeks-long treks through remote, inhospitable rainforests in Indonesia and the Philippines to locate these flowers; adventures he has recounted in a new book, Pathless Forest: The Quest to Save the World’s Largest Flower. Sometimes he and his colleagues walk for weeks, slashing through thick undergrowth, sleeping only a few hours at night, braving the heat, the humidity, the leeches and all manner of poisonous plants and creatures, and find no rafflesia at all. On one recent trip he was stung by a stinging tree, and the chemical burns took weeks to heal. On another, he developed a high fever on the plane home, and when he eventually dragged himself to the doctor’s surgery his GP, reading over his blood test results, said they couldn’t believe he wasn’t in hospital. Thorogood is fine now, but he knows a botanist who picked up something on a trip to Papua New Guinea and “hasn’t been the same since”.

Still, Thorogood insists that: “I’m a normal guy in most respects, I just get to go to really unusual places. I don’t see myself as Bear Grylls or anything.” He is 40, warm and self-deprecating, and looks more like a member of a boy band than some swashbuckling explorer. We had planned to meet in the Oxford Botanic Garden but, this being 2024, travel disruptions forced me to abort my journey midway and call him on Zoom instead.

Most species of rafflesia are now close to extinction as rainforests are cleared, and because there are no seeds to store or grow, conservationists face a considerable challenge. At a botanic garden in Bogor, Indonesia, scientists have successfully cultivated rafflesia by grafting an infected vine. In the Philippines, Thorogood and his colleagues at the University of the Philippines Los Baños, Pastor Malabrigo Jr and Adriane Tobias, are trying to do the same. Their graft has taken, but they must wait at least a year to see if the rafflesia will emerge.

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Thorogood spends a lot of time trying to grow things that have never been cultivated before – “and I’ve got a lot of experience of failure!” He usually finds the waiting hard, nail-biting even, but he told me that after they grafted the rafflesia vine he experienced an unusual calm. “I’m not trying to pretend that by doing one graft we’ve solved all these problems,” he said, “but if we’re able to grow the ungrowable, that could extend to other species.” We can’t undo deforestation, Thorogood argues, so the best alternative is to focus on finding new ways to allow nature to recover.

About two in five plant species worldwide are at risk of extinction, a statistic that doesn’t tend to move people in the same way that the extinction of animals – especially the big, charismatic ones, such as rhinos or tigers – does. Thorogood wants to change this, to help people see plants in a new way. It’s a challenge. He’s noticed that often people don’t really see plants as living: sometimes he will show someone a Venus flytrap and when its leaves snap shut over a fly, they will exclaim: “Ooh, it’s alive!” 

His colleagues who work in education at the Oxford Botanic Garden tell him that many children today don’t know what an acorn is, let alone how to identify an oak tree from its leaves. “With plants, the curiosity isn’t always immediate, there’s something more remote, and you have to look harder to see it,” he said. Thorogood also teaches botanical drawing, and on his Instagram and Twitter accounts he posts his exquisite paintings of the weird plants he finds on his travels, or pictures of himself grinning widely next to giant leaves or luminous flowers.

Thorogood’s love of plants is innate. “I was a bit of an odd child, if I’m honest,” he said. “I was always fascinated by and drawn to unusual life forms.” He has never been particularly enthused by cuddly things, or big mammals, dolphins and sharks – the kind of creatures that excite most people. But as a young child he developed an obsessive interest in starfish, and he has long grown plants in fish tanks on his bedroom windowsill.

He told me he had a “normal” upbringing in Essex and is hesitant to say more because people like to distort and dramatise this part of his story, to suggest that his childhood was more difficult than it was. Journalists always probe him for some specific incident that ignited his passions, he said, but there is none.

As a child, he began keeping pet toads. A neighbour had sparked up conversation with a woman who was walking around with a toad in an old ice-cream tub and told her: “I know a kid who’d love to meet you.” And so the woman, who was known locally as Mrs Toad, showed up at the house soon after with some tadpoles and a massive, 15-year-old toad named Etty.

Thorogood stopped keeping toads as pets in his twenties, when he was studying botany at Bristol University and his life “wasn’t really conducive to having toads around”. But eight years ago, he started again, raising “Eloise” from a tadpole. Eloise follows him around when he’s tending to his garden, a wild, miniature Eden in rural Oxfordshire.

“Toads are full of personality and intrigue,” Thorogood said. “They are some of the most characterful creatures in the British fauna.” He can tell their mood from how they change colour he told me, before laughing at himself: “Your readers will think I’ve lost my mind!”

Toads also seem to be able to sense when it is going to rain. So you don’t have to trek deep into the rainforest to feel awe at nature? “Beautiful life forms exist all around us,” he said. “I’ve been intrigued by plants growing in car parks… there are striking works of nature all around us if we take the time to look.”

When Thorogood started giving talks on conservation, he’d trot out the usual lines: “We have a duty of care to protect the wonder of the natural world for our grandchildren…” but now his perspective has shifted. It’s true that plants are fascinating, and that they will play a key role in helping us fight the climate crisis – they capture carbon and provide us with food and medicine – but, he argues, why should we value nature only in terms of the enjoyment or utility we derive from it? “There’s a moral imperative: it has a right to coexist with us in harmony. We thrive when nature around us thrives. And plants are very much a part of that.”

[See also: Amsterdam’s city gardens are a potted paradise]

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