“The ugliest orchid in the world” among new species named in 2020

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(This story from December 17 has been corrected to change the language of paragraph 9)

FILE PHOTO: An orchid (Gastrodia agnicellus) is seen in this photo taken in Madagascar on September 20, 2019. Rick Burian / Document via REUTERS

LONDON (Reuters) – Orchids aren’t often called ugly, but that’s how the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, London, described a new, normally vibrant and delicate flower species discovered in the forests of Madagascar.

Gastrodia agnicellus, one of 156 plant and fungal species named by Kew scientists and their partners around the world in 2020, has been named “the ugliest orchid in the world.”

“This orchid’s 11mm flowers are small, brown, and rather ugly,” Kew said in his list of the top 10 finds of the year. The orchid depends on fungi for its nutrition and does not have leaves or other photosynthetic tissue.

Although assessed as an endangered species, the plants enjoy some protection as they are located in a national park.

Other officially named discoveries this year included six new species of Webcap fungus in the UK and a strange shrub encountered in southern Namibia in 2010.

Botanist Wessel Swanepoel was unable to place the shrub in any known genus or anyone else, so Swanepoel called Kew’s molecular expert Felix Forest and his team for analysis.

The result was that it was not just a new species, but a new genus and a new family, called Tiganophyton karasense.

While about 2,000 plants are named new to science each year, new families are only released about once a year.

The shrub has bizarre scaly leaves and grows in extremely hot natural salt marshes, hence its name Tiganophyton, derived from the Greek “Tigani”, or “frying pan”, and “Phyton“, or “plant”.

Martin Cheek, senior research director at Kew, praised the latest natural findings.

“Some could provide vital income to communities while others could have the potential to be developed into a future food or medicine,” he said.

But he warned: “The grim reality we face cannot be underestimated. With two in five plants threatened with extinction, it’s a race against time to find, identify, name and conserve plants before they become extinct.

Reporting by Mike Collett-White


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