A ghost orchid that grows in complete darkness, an insect-trapping tobacco plant and an “exploding firework” flower are among the new species named by scientists in the last year. The species include a voodoo flower from Cameroon and a rare tooth fungus discovered near London.
A new tree of the ylang ylang family will be the first to be named in 2022. It is being named after Leonardo DiCaprio, actor and environmentalist. He campaigned for the revocation of a logging concession that threatened the African tree. It has glossy yellow flowers along its trunk.
These plants are among the 205 new species that were named by scientists at Kew’s Royal Botanic Gardens and their collaborators from around the globe in 2021. All are vital parts of the planet’s biodiversity and some may provide food and medicine.
Many species are already extinct in nature and are under threat from expanding palm oil plantations, mining, and forest destruction. There are over 400,000 plant species. Two in five of them are at risk of extinction. Scientists said it was a race against the clock to identify new plants before they disappear forever.
Scientists around the world have identified approximately 2,000 new species of plants every year for at most a decade. “It’s almost bewildering that we’re still discovering so many,” said Dr Martin Cheek, at RBG Kew. “But now is our last chance to find unknown species, name them and hopefully protect them before they become globally extinct.”
The new ghost orchid, one of 16 new orchids found in dense and remote forests of Madagascar, was named Didymoplexis Stella-silvae by Kew’s Johan Hermans, meaning “star of the forest” as it grows in complete darkness and has star-like flowers. It does not have leaves or chlorophyll, but it gets all its nutrients from underground fungi. The flower only peeks through the forest floor humus for a few days to attract pollinators, who may be ants.
Three new orchids are thought to be extinct in nature due to forest destruction. One tree-dwelling orchid was likely to go extinct because of the high demand for geranium oils in aromatherapy. “Sadly, Madagascar’s many unique plants are under threat from deforestation and droughts, floods, and fires caused by climate change,” said Hermans. “It really is a race against time.”
The unusual tobacco plant was found near a truck stop, Western Australia. It has sticky glands that trap insects and kill them. “The arid parts of Australia, which include most of the continent, have been thought of as almost barren, but in recent years these poorly studied areas have yielded many new and unusual species,” said Prof. Mark Chase, at RBG Kew.
“Who knows how many thousands of plant species it will be revealed in future to have likely become extinct due to palm oil plantations,” said Cheek. “It’s sickening.”
The new pink voodoo flower lily has a flower spike that measures 30cm tall and was discovered in a small part of the vast Ebo Forest in Cameroon. The Ebo Forest also contains the tree named for Di Caprio. Despite the cancellation of logging permits by the president Cameroon in August 2020 Uvariopsis dicaprio remains critically endangered because its habitat remains unprotected from potential future logging.
The new fungus was first found in the UK’s Windsor Great Park under a sweet chestnut tree in 2008, but not named until now as DNA analysis of a suite of species had to be completed together. It is one among a number of unusual mushrooms that form mushrooms with elongated and gill-like teeth under their caps.
It took even longer for scientists to name another new species, a blue-berried coffee bush from the coffee family, which was discovered in Borneo. Scientists first saw it in a painting by Marianne North, a prominent botanical artist. It was created in 1876 during a stay near the Sarawak river.
One new species was discovered in the laboratory, not in the wild. The microscopic fungus was found lurking in a wild banana seed from Vietnam kept at Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank in Sussex. Fusarium chuoi, which has a coral colour and a velvety texture, is an “endophyte”, a fungus that lives inside a plant without causing it any visible harm. The scientists stated that distinguishing these from pathogenic mushrooms is critical for protecting plant health.
The other species that were highlighted included a periwinkle from the Andean hills in Bolivia that produces kiwi-like fruits when roasted, and five Cape primroses that are threatened by copper mines.
“So many of our medicines come directly from plants, or are inspired by compounds that come out of plants,” said Cheek. “If we make species extinct before we can even look at what chemicals are inside them, isn’t that bonkers?”