The ghost orchid grows in complete darkness in Madagascar’s dense forests. Instead of using photosynthesis, its nutrients come from symbiotic relationships with underground fungi. The orchid pokes its bloom through the forest floor for a single day to attract pollinators, possibly ants. This newly discovered orchid is one of the 205 new species named by the scientists of Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and their worldwide collaborators in 2021.
Of the world’s 400,000 named plant species, 40% are threatened by extinction. Many probably disappear before they’re ever named. In the last decade, scientists have named about 2,000 new plant species every year.
“It’s almost bewildering that we’re still discovering so many,” said Dr. Martin Cheek at RBG Kew, as reported by The Guardian. “But now is our last chance to find unknown species, name them and hopefully protect them before they become globally extinct.”
Many plants provide food and medicine to humans. Others serve us indirectly by being part of natural ecosystems and global biodiversity. Major threats to plant species include overexploitation, habitat loss, pollution, invasive species and climate change. Palm oil and mining are well known for ruining ecosystems. But less obvious human endeavors also threaten plants. Aerangis bovicornu, a tree-dwelling Madagascar orchid, no longer survives in the wild, likely thanks to people harvesting geranium oil for aromatherapy.
Other standouts among the newly named include Nicotiana insecticida, an insect-catching tobacco plant found near Western Australia. While tobacco is well known for killing people, this is the first tobacco species known to target flies, aphids and gnats. Scientists dubbed a primrose from Borneo Ardisia pyrotechnica because its bloom display resembles white fireworks. A group of Kew scientists named a tropical tree from Cameroon’s Ebo Forest Uvariopsis dicaprio after actor/environmentalist Leonardo DiCaprio. A member of the ylang-ylang family, the tree sports yellow-green flowers on its trunk.
While the new finds are exciting, scientists feel they are racing against the clock to discover all of the planet’s amazing plant species. “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.”
Lead image via Big Cypress National Preserve