Dear Readers, in a break from tradition I thought that this week I’d share some of last year’s new plant discoveries with you all. I am unlikely to find any of these plants appearing in Coldfall Wood or popping up from a crack in the pavement, but they are all, in their own ways, astonishing.
First up is the insect-killing tobacco plant (Nicotiana insecticida), discovered in the Australian desert by Professor Mark W Chase. These regions are extremely arid, and haven’t been much studied because it was assumed that not much could grow there. However, Professor Chase and his team have discovered no less than 7 new species of desert tobacco plant, a difficult undertaking because many of them can remain in the soil as seeds for years until just the right conditions arise.
Nicotiana insecticida is covered in sticky glands that catch aphids, gnats and other small invertebrates. The Professor doesn’t think that Nicotiana insecticida is a truly carnivorous plant yet – the glands appear to be for defensive purposes, to protect the plant against predation. However that’s probably how many of our more familiar insect-eating plants, such as the sundew, got their start, so it would be interesting to see how things develop.
Next up is the Star of the Forest (Didymoplexis stella-silvae), discovered along with 16 other ‘ghost orchid’ species in Madagascar by Kew scientists Johan Hermans and Phill Cribb in collaboration with with Landy Rajaovelona and Malagasy researchers at the Kew Madagascar Conservation Centre.
The plant grows in almost complete darkness and depends on fungi for its energy (I am currently reading Merlin Sheldrake’s ‘ Entangled Life’ on the relationships between fungi and other parts of the ecosystem so this comes as no surprise). The star-like flowers only appear directly after rain, and disappear 24 hours later.
Of the 16 species discovered, 3 were already thought to have become extinct by the time the scientific paper was published, such is the speed of change in our industrialising world. One species was probably eradicated when its forest habitat was destroyed to grow geranium oil, much used by Western aromatherapists. A second species was probably lost during a climate-change driven flash flood. The third plant now only exists as a single specimen in cultivation in Europe.
Five new species of Streptocarpus (Cape Primrose) were named during 2021, all discovered in the Democratic Republic of Congo. While many Streptocarpus species are popular houseplants, in the wild they are often very localised and vulnerable to habitat distruction. One species, Streptocarpus malachiticola, is particularly threatened – it grows on malachite, which is one of the ores from which copper is mined. Global copper prices are at an all-time high, and this plant, which grows in only three locations, is assessed as Endangered by the IUCN.
And finally, a plant that is very close to my heart. This one comes from the forests of Borneo, which you might remember I saw first-hand during my 60th birthday trip back in 2020 (which feels like several millenia ago). The Firework Plant (Ardisia pyrotechnica), was named by a group of Malaysian and Japanese scientists in collaboration with Kew’s Tim Utteridge. It is a spectacular plant, growing up to 4 metres tall and covered in white flowers. However, I also witnessed first-hand the size of the palm oil plantations, and the way that they seem to devour the tropical rainforest. The Firework Plant ( a member of the primrose family) has been found in only two locations, and there are only a handful of individual plants, so it has already been classified as Critically Endangered by the IUCN.
What this list really illustrates is that as fast as we’re finding plants, we’re in danger of losing them. There is no way of sweetening that bitter pill.