An orchid species – so far unknown, although belonging to one of the most popular orchid families – was discovered by botanists in Japan. The secrets of these plants, with delicate flowers that look like they are made of glass, have been studied by scientists for 10 years. They describe them as “botanical gems.”
Researchers have discovered a new species of orchid in Japan with flowers so delicate and fragile that they look like they’re made of glass. Describing their success in the Journal of Plant Research, they emphasized that it is an important reminder not to fall under the illusion that “we already know everything” because more such surprises may be hiding right under our noses.
– The diversity of the orchid family is truly amazing. The new findings reinforce the need to study and protect these botanical gems, said Justin Kondrat of the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection, not a member of the team that studied the new species.
Stem with small flowers
Orchids of the genus Spirax (Spiranthes) are sometimes called “ladies braids” due to their resemblance to this hairstyle. They are characterized by a single stem, which is covered with tiny, bell-shaped flowers. Science knows about 50 species belonging to this genus. They have been found in temperate to tropical regions in Europe, Asia, Australia and the Americas. They have been known in Japan for hundreds of years. Until now, three main orchid species of this genus were thought to occur in the country: S. australis, S. sinensis and S. hongkongensis, the former being endemic.
And it was in this – it seemed – well-studied family that a new species was discovered. The plants were spotted in Tokyo prefecture on the volcanic island of Hachijo-jima in the Philippine Sea. Because of this location, the name was decided Spiranthes hachijoensis.
Later, these plants were also found in the Kanto, Kyushu, Shikoku and Chubu regions.
How a new species of orchid was discovered
It started with the fact that in 2012 Kenji Suetsugu from Kobe University studied plants of what he believed to be S. australis. However, he realized that their stem was smooth instead of covered with hairs. He also observed that the flowers appeared earlier than usual in S. australis.
“This prompted us to investigate further,” Suetsugu said.
For 10 years, he and other researchers searched for hairless orchids and analyzed their physical characteristics, genetics and methods of reproduction. As the scientist explained, because populations of orchids of this genus often overlap geographically and can look similar, ‘it is important to understand their distribution and ecology comprehensively in order to be able to distinguish the unique characteristics of a new species.’
According to the authors of the study, flowers S. hachijoensis they are “purple-pink to white” in color and their petals are 3 to 4 millimeters long, less than other species Spiranthes. They do not have also a self-pollinating structure. Morphologically, the plant is closely related to S. hongkongensis and S. niveabut minor physical differences and genetic analysis confirmed its uniqueness.
“We were excited to have identified a new species Spiranthes – Suetsugu said. He emphasized that the discovery was made within the most famous type of orchid in Japan, cultivated in this country for centuries. He added that these flowers were mentioned in the oldest Japanese poetry anthology from 759.
The need to protect
Identification of new plant species in Japan is a rare event, as the country’s flora is generally extensively documented and studied.
‘The discovery of new species in ordinary places underscores the need for persistent search,’ said Suetsugu. ‘It also highlights the continuing need for taxonomic and genetic studies to accurately assess species diversity,’ he added.
There are about 28,000 species of orchids in the world. However, they are rapidly losing their natural habitats, which can make a discovery like the one from Tokyo prefecture difficult. Simply – scientists may not make it in time.
Main photo source: Masayuki Ishibashi/Katsumi Iwahori KS246 , KYO/Kobe University’s Division of Biodiversity, Ecology and Speciation