Glassy orchid species hidden in plain sight in Japan

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Sometimes new flower species lurk where scientists least expect them – in parks, gardens and even in window boxes on balconies.

That’s where researchers in Japan recently identified a new species of orchid whose pinkish-white flowers are so delicate and fragile they look like they’ve been spun out of glass.

The newly described flower is a neighbor to populations of a related orchid species that is common in Japan and closely resembles it. The discovery is an important reminder that unknown species often live right 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 such as these Spiranthes reinforce the urgency to study and protect these botanical gems,” Justin Kondrat, chief horticulturist for the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection, said in an email. email to CNN. . Kondrat was not involved in the investigation.

Orchids in this genus – Spiranthes – are called “lady’s locks” because of their resemblance to wavy locks of hair. Spiranthes have a central stem around which grows an ascending spiral of small, 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, mostly in temperate or tropical regions, and these flowers have been known in Japan for hundreds of years, according to the study.

The colors of the flowers of the flower newcomer vary

Populations of the floral newcomer were discovered in Tokyo Prefecture near Hachijo Island, inspiring the species name Spiranthes hachijoensis. Before 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, during a study in mainland Japan more than a decade ago, lead study author Kenji Suetsugu, a professor in Kobe University’s Department of Biodiversity, Ecology, and Speciation, found something unusual: flowers believed to be S. australis , but with smooth stems. (S. australis usually has hairy stems.)

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

“This prompted us to investigate further,” Suetsugu said.

From 2012 to 2022, he and his colleagues searched for the hairless orchids and analyzed the plants’ physical characteristics, genetics and means of reproduction. Because Spiranthes species often overlap geographically and can resemble each other, “it is important to have a comprehensive understanding of the distribution and ecology of related species in order to discern the unique characteristics of a new species,” he said.

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

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

“We were thrilled to have identified a new species of Spiranthes,” Suetsugu said. “Spiranthes is the most famous orchid in Japan and has been cherished for centuries,” he said, adding that the flower is mentioned in Japan’s oldest book of poetry dating back to 759.

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

Identifying new plant species in Japan is an unusual event, with the country’s flora having been extensively documented and studied. This discovery is likely to spark interest in the flower, which is much rarer than S. australis, he added.

“This discovery of new species hidden in common locations underscores the need for continued exploration, even in seemingly inconspicuous environments!” Suetsugu said via email. “It also highlights the ongoing need for taxonomic and genetic research to accurately assess species diversity.”

The fragile beauty of the renewed “lady’s locks” is a hallmark of orchids, but so is fragility. There are about 28,000 known orchid species worldwide. However, habitat loss has endangered many species and the flowers’ popularity will not save them if they are not protected.

“Orchids have closely intertwined connections within so many ecosystems and different aspects of science and culture,” Kondrat said. “People are fascinated by their many shapes and colours. It is this emotional response that hopefully encourages and inspires people to take action to protect them.”

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