(CNN) Sometimes, newly discovered flower species lurk where scientists least expect to see them—in parks, gardens, and even in balcony plantings.
This is where researchers in Japan recently identified a new species of orchid, whose pink-and-white flowers are so delicate and fragile that they appear to be spun from glass.
The newly described flower is adjacent to groups of related orchid species common in Japan to which it closely resembles. Scientists say its discovery is an important reminder that unknown species often live right under our noses Journal of Plant Research.
“The incredible diversity of the orchid family, Orchidaceae, is truly astonishing, and new discoveries like Spiranthes reinforce the urgent need to study and protect these botanical gems,” Justin Kondrat, senior horticulturist with the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Group, told CNN in an email. . Kondrat was not involved in the research.
Orchids in this genus – Spiranthes – are called “ladies’ locks” for their resemblance to wavy locks of hair. Spiranthes have a central stem, around which grows an upward spiral of small bell-shaped flowers which can be white, pink, purple or yellow.
There are about 50 species of Spiranthes found in Eurasia, Australia, and the Americas, usually in temperate or tropical regions, and these flowers have been known to Japan for hundreds of years, according to the study.
A newcomer population of florals was discovered in Tokyo Prefecture near Hachijo Island, inspiring the species name Spiranthes hachijoensis. Prior to this discovery, three species of Spiranthes orchids had been found in Japan: S. australis, S. sinensis, and S.
However, during a survey conducted on mainland Japan more than a decade ago, the study’s lead author Kenji Suetsugu, a professor in the Department of Biodiversity, Ecology and Species at Kobe University, found something unusual: flowers that were supposedly S. australis but with smooth stems. . (S. australis usually has hairy stems.)
As Sutsugu told CNN in an email, the hairless clusters also bloomed about a month earlier than S. australis usually does—another indication that the rogue orchids may not be S. australis.
“This led us to investigate further,” Sutsugu said.
From 2012 to 2022, he and his colleagues researched hairless orchids and analyzed the plants’ physical features, genetics, and means of reproduction. Because Spiranthes species often overlap geographically and can look alike, “it is important to have a thorough understanding of the distribution and ecology of related species to distinguish unique traits of new species,” he said.
The colors of the S. hachijoensis flowers varied “from purplish-pink to white,” with petals about 0.1 to 0.2 inches (3 to 4 mm) long, the researchers reported.
S. hachijoensis had smaller flowers with wider bases and straighter central petals than other species of Spiranthes. It also lacks a self-pollinating structure. Morphologically, it was a close match of S. hongkongensis and S. nivea, but subtle physical differences and genetic analysis confirmed that it was unique. In addition to the Tokyo population, the study authors found S. hachijoensis elsewhere in the Kantō region and in the Kyushu, Shikoku, and Chubu regions.
“We were thrilled to have identified a new species of Speranthes,” Sutsugu said. “The spirant is the most popular orchid in Japan and has been cherished for centuries,” he said, adding that the flower is mentioned in Japan’s oldest poetic anthology dating back to 759.
The identification of new plant species in Japan is an unusual event, as the nation’s flora has been extensively documented and studied. He added that the discovery is likely to spark interest in the flower, which is a very rare S. australis.
“This discovery of new species hidden in public spaces underscores the need for continued exploration, even in seemingly unnoticed places!” Suetsugu said via email. “It also highlights the continuing need for taxonomic and genetic research to accurately assess species diversity.”
The fragile beauty of these newfound “ladies’ locks” is a defining characteristic of orchids—and so is vulnerability. there about 28,000 known species of orchids all over the world. However, habitat loss has threatened many species, and the popularity of flowers will not save them if they are not protected.
“Orchids have closely intertwined connections within many ecosystems as well as different aspects of science and culture,” Kondrat said. “People can’t help but be fascinated by their many shapes and colours. We hope that this emotional response will encourage and inspire people to take action to protect them.”
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