Species of glass-like orchid discovered hidden in plain sight in Japan

(CNN) Sometimes new species of flowers lurk where scientists least expect to see them – in parks, gardens and even in window boxes on balconies.

It’s where researchers in Japan recently identified a new species of orchid, its pink and white flowers so delicate and fragile they look like they’ve been spun from glass.

The newly described flower neighbors populations of a related orchid species common in Japan to which it closely resembles. His discovery is an important reminder that unknown species often live under our noses, scientists reported Friday in the Journal of Plant Research.

“The incredible diversity of the orchid family, Orchidaceae, is truly astounding, and new discoveries like this Spiranthes reinforce the urgency to study and protect these botanical gems,” said Justin Kondrat, Chief Horticulturist of the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection, to CNN in an email. . Kondrat was not involved in the research.

Orchids of this genus – Spiranthes – are called “ladies’ braids” for their resemblance to wavy strands of hair. Lady’s-tresses have a central stem, around which grows an upward spiral of tiny bell-shaped flowers that 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 in Japan for hundreds of years, according to the study.

The floral newcomer’s flower colors vary “from pinkish-purple to white,” the researchers said.

Populations of the floral newcomer have been discovered in Tokyo Prefecture near Hachijo Island, inspiring the species name Spiranthes hachijoensis. Prior to this discovery, three species of Spiranthes orchids were found in Japan: S. australis, S. sinensis, and S. hongkongensis, and only S. australis was thought to grow on the Japanese mainland.

However, when surveying mainland Japan more than a decade ago, the study’s lead author, Kenji Suetsugu, a professor in the Biodiversity, Ecology and Speciation Division of the University of Kobe, discovered something unusual: flowers presumed to be S. australis but with smooth stems. (S. australis usually has hairy stems.)

Hairless populations also bloomed about a month earlier than S. australis usually did — another indication that these rogue orchids might not be S. australis, Suetsugu told CNN in an email.

“It led us to investigate further,” Suetsugu said.

From 2012 to 2022, he and his colleagues researched hairless orchids and analyzed the plants’ physical characteristics, genetics, and means of reproduction. Because Spiranthes species often overlap geographically and may resemble each other, “it is important to have a comprehensive understanding of the distribution and ecology of related species to distinguish the unique characteristics of a new species”, a- he declared.

The colors of S. hachijoensis flowers ranged “from purple-pink to white,” with petals measuring about 0.1 to 0.2 inches (3 to 4 millimeters) long, the researchers reported.

S. hachijoensis had smaller flowers with broader bases and straighter central petals than other Spiranthes species; it also lacked a structure for self-pollination. Morphologically, it closely matched S. hongkongensis and S. nivea, but minimal physical differences and genetic analyzes confirmed that it was unique. In addition to the Tokyo population, the study authors found S. hachijoensis elsewhere in Kanto district and in Kyushu, Shikoku, and Chubu districts.

“We were thrilled to have identified a new species of Spiranthes,” Suetsugu said. “Lady-tresses are the most familiar orchid in Japan and have been cherished for centuries,” he said, adding that the flower is mentioned in Japan’s oldest anthology of poetry which dates back to 759.

It has smaller flowers with wider bases and straighter central petals than other Spiranthes species.

The identification of new plant species in Japan is a rare event, as the national flora is widely documented and studied. The discovery will likely spark interest in the flower, which is much rarer than S. australis, he added.

“This discovery of new species hiding in commonplaces underscores the need for persistent exploration, even in seemingly mundane environments!” Suetsugu said via email. “It also highlights the continued need for taxonomic and genetic research to accurately assess species diversity.”

The fragile beauty of new “ladies’ braids” is a hallmark of orchids – but so is vulnerability. There are approximately 28,000 known species of orchids in the world. However, habitat loss has endangered many species, and the popularity of flowers will not save them if they are not protected.

“Orchids have tightly intertwined connections within so many ecosystems as well as different aspects of science and culture,” Kondrat said. “People can’t help but be captivated by their many shapes and colors. It’s this emotional response that hopefully encourages and inspires people to take action to protect them.”

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