Glassy orchid species that hid in plain sight in Japan

(CNN) Sometimes newly discovered species of flowers lurk where scientists least expect them — in parks, gardens, and even in balcony planters.

There, researchers in Japan recently identified a new species of orchid whose pink-and-white flowers are as delicate and fragile as if they were spun from glass.

The newly described flower is a neighbor of populations of a related orchid species common to Japan, to which it closely resembles. Its 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 Orchidaceae family of orchids is truly astounding, and new discoveries like this Spiranthes reinforce the urgency to study and protect these botanical gems,” Justin Kondrat, senior horticulturist at the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection, told CNN in an E -Mail . Kondrat was not involved in the research.

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

The flowers of the floral newcomer vary in color “from purple-pink to white,” the researchers said.

Populations of the floral newcomer were 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 in mainland Japan.

However, in a survey of mainland Japan over a decade ago, the study’s lead author, Kenji Suetsugu, a professor in the Department of Biodiversity, Ecology and Speciation at the University of Kobe, found something unusual: flowers thought to be S. australis are, but have smooth stems. (S. australis typically has hairy stems.)

The hairless populations also bloomed about a month earlier than S. australis normally — further suggesting these renegade 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, analyzing the plants’ physical characteristics, genetics and reproductive methods. Because Spiranthes species can often overlap geographically and appear similar, “it is important to have a thorough understanding of the distribution and ecology of related species in order to distinguish the unique characteristics of a new species,” he said.

The colors of the flowers of S. hachijoensis varied “from purple-pink to white,” with petals that were about 3 to 4 millimeters long, 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 was a close match to S. hongkongensis and S. nivea, but minute physical differences and genetic analysis confirmed that it was unique. In addition to the Tokyo population, the study authors also found S. hachijoensis elsewhere in Kanto District and in Kyushu, Shikoku, and Chubu Districts.

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

It has smaller flowers with broader bases and straight central petals than other Spiranthes species.

The identification of new plant species in Japan is an unusual occurrence as the country’s flora is extensively documented and studied. This discovery will likely spark interest in the flower, which is much rarer than S. australis, he added.

“This discovery of new species hidden in ordinary places underscores the need for persistent exploration, even in seemingly unremarkable environments!” Suetsugu said via email. “It also underscores the ongoing need for taxonomic and genetic research to accurately assess species diversity.”

The fragile beauty of the newly discovered “lady’s strands” is a trademark of orchids – but so is their vulnerability. There are around 28,000 known species of orchids worldwide. However, habitat loss has endangered many species, and the flowers’ popularity will not save them unless protected.

“Orchids are deeply intertwined with so many ecosystems as well as various aspects of science and culture,” Kondrat said. ‚ÄúPeople can’t help but be fascinated by its many shapes and colors. It’s that emotional response that I hope will encourage and inspire people to take action to protect them.”

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