Researchers from the venerable Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, aka Kew Gardens, have been busy combing forests, jungles, mountain tops, scrublands and deserts all over the world for new plants. In 2020, they published, with their partners, the discovery of 156 plant and fungal species from all over the planet.
Here are some of them.
Spectacular Hibiscus Discovered Online!
This new hibiscus with deeply cut petals, Hibiscus hareyae, was actually discovered online by the Australian hibiscus specialist, Lex Thompson. He was studying online images of historic herbarium specimens when he recognized that one shrub from the scrub vegetation of Southern Tanzania was actually mislabeled. It was not the well-known and commonly grown fringed hibiscus (H. schizopetalus), but had several different physical features, including broader deciduous leaves, a sturdier growth habit and a larger number of anthers. It grows in coastal thickets of much drier soils and has better tolerance of drought conditions than the usual fringed hibiscus. This added resilience to harsh conditions means it also has great horticultural potential.
The plant was named for Dr Hareya Fassil who works on traditional plant-based medicines in Africa.
Possibly The World’s Ugliest Orchid
This tiny orchid, Gastrodia agnicellus, with oh-so-ugly flowers, was found growing on the forest floor in Madagascar. A curious terrestrial orchid, it is saprophytic, living off fungus from which it obtains all its nutrition. Indeed, it has no leaves or any other photosynthetic tissue. The flowers are small (11 mm, that is, less than ½ inch in diameter) and a very boring brown, hardly our image of what an orchid bloom should look like. It apparently doesn’t need brightly colored flowers to attract pollinating insects, as it is believed to largely self-pollinate. After pollination, the stalks grow taller, holding the fruits well above the forest floor to ensure better distribution of the dustlike seeds.
A new species has been added to the bromeliad (pineapple) family: Acanthostachys calcicola, found growing on limestone cliffs in central Brazil by Brazilian botanists Pablo Hendrigo Alves de Melo and Gabriel Mendes Marcusso with the help of Kew scientist Alex Munro. Only 25 specimens were discovered and they’re threatened by the extraction of limestone for cement production. It is believed to be hummingbird pollinated.
Say Aloe to New Aloes
A team of Kew botanists, led by Solofo Rakotoarisoa, has found two new aloes species, Aloe rakotonasoloi and A. vatovavensis in Madagascar. Since they weren’t in bloom at the time of discovery, they were grown on in a garden in the country’s capital, Antananarivo, until they did, confirming they were new species. Curiously, while aloes are usually found in sunny, open areas, both species were found in a forest.
A New Shrub Joins the Ericaceae
A new terrestrial shrub with stems covered in golden-brown bristles, rounded leathery leaves, drooping bell-shaped red-tinged flowers and red berries that turn black, Diplycosia puradyatmikai, was discovered in stunted montane forest near the top of Indonesian New Guinea’s highest mountain, Mount Jaya, by a group of Indonesian and Kew scientists led by Wendy A. Mustaqim. The 5-foot (1.5 m) shrub is in the Ericaceae family, along with blueberries and rhododendrons. It’s most closely related to wintergreen (Gaultheria spp.).
A Rare Plant with Medicinal Potential
Kew scientist David Goyder discovered this new marsdenia (Marsdenia chirindensis) in the Chirinda forest of Zimbabwe on the border with Mozambique. Only one or two plants of the new species are known to exist. Closely related to the popular stephanotis or garland flower (once called Stephanotis floribunda, but now Marsdenia floribunda), the new species is one of some 150 in a genus that is widely known for plants with medicinal value, used in treating health issues such as flatulence, gonorrhoea, paralysis, burns and fungal skin infections. The medicinal efficacy of this new species has not yet been tested, but is potentially important.
New Orchids From New Guinea
With the help of partners Reza Saputra in Indonesia and Jaap Vermeulen in the Netherlands, Kew’s orchid specialist André Schuiteman named 19 new species of epiphytic orchids from New Guinea this year, including the brilliantly colored golden orange Dendrobium aurifex, which has been successfully bloomed in Kew’s greenhouses. All of these orchids are extremely rare and some were in fact described from a single preserved specimen gathered years ago. For that reason, some may already have gone extinct. This is hardly surprising, as 2 plants in 5 in the world are currently threatened with extinction.
A Frying Pan Shrub
A very strange dwarf shrub, with bizarre scaly leaves, looking like no other plant on earth, was discovered in the semi-desert of the Karas region in southern Namibia by Wessel Swanepoel in 2010, but went unnamed, as no one could place it in any known genus. Well, Kew’s molecular expert, Felix Forest, discovered it was in the cabbage order (Brassicales), but didn’t belong to any current genus. So, Tiganophyton karasense is not only a new species, but belongs to a new genus and a new monotypic family (a family composed of only one species): the Tiganophytaceae. This is unique, as though some 2,000 new species of plants are named every year, the naming of new family is a very rare occurrence indeed.
The plant grows in extremely hot natural salt pans, hence its name Tiganophyton, which was derived from the Greek word “tigani” (frying pan), and “phyton” (plant). The area is the hottest in all of Namibia, with daytime temperatures averaging 97 °F (36 °C) during January and February. And it receives only 4–6 inches (10–15 cm) of rain per year. A frying pan shrub indeed!
An Edible and Beauty Morning Glory
Move over, sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas): you might just have a competitor from your own genus. The newly named tuberous morning glory, I. noemana, with beautiful pink flowers, is not however really that new to locals, but had remained unnoticed by botanists until recently. It has been harvested by humans in the Andes of Peru for centuries where it is known as “yura”. The sweet 4-inch (10-cm) purple tubers grow among cactus at high altitudes. It has yet to be evaluated for nutritional value and agricultural potential, but it sure is pretty!
The plant was named for the Peruvian philanthropist Noema Cano by a team of Peruvian and Kew researchers led by Enoc Jara, of the National University of San Marcos in Lima.
An Airport Toadstool
Well, Kew researchers didn’t have to look far for this one! The Heathrow Airport toadstool (Cortinarius heatherae) was found on the grounds of London’s Heathrow Airport, scarcely 8 miles (12 km) from Kew Gardens, by field mycologist Andy Overall and named after his wife Heather. It’s a beneficial mycorrhizal fungus that plays a key role in the carbon cycling of woodlands and providing nitrogen to trees such as oaks, pines, birches and beeches. With a plain brown top and creamy stem, it can only be distinguished from similar fungi through laboratory testing.
Information adapted from an article by Dr. Martin Cheek that appeared on the Kew Gardens website.