Glasslike orchid species found hiding in plain sight in Japan
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Sometimes newfound flower species are lurking where scientists least expect to see them — in parks, gardens and even in planters on balconies.
That’s where researchers in Japan recently identified a new species of orchid, its pink-and-white blooms so delicate and fragile they look like they were spun from glass.
The newly described flower is a neighbor to populations of a related orchid species common in Japan that it closely resembles. Its discovery is an important reminder that unknown species are often living right under our noses, scientists reported Friday in the Journal of Plant Research.
“The incredible diversity of the orchid family, Orchidaceae, is truly astonishing, and new discoveries like this Spiranthes reinforce the urgency to study and protect these botanical gems,” Justin Kondrat, lead horticulturist for the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection, told CNN in an email. Kondrat was not involved in the research.
Orchids in this genus — Spiranthes — are called “ladies’ tresses” for their resemblance to wavy locks of hair. Spiranthes have a central stem, around which grow 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 the Americas, typically in temperate or tropical regions, and these flowers have been known in Japan for hundreds of years, according to the study.
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 survey on mainland Japan over a decade ago, lead study author Kenji Suetsugu, a professor in Kobe University’s Division of Biodiversity, Ecology and Speciation, found something unusual: flowers presumed to be S. australis but with smooth stems. (S. australis typically has hairy stems.)
The hairless populations also flowered about one month earlier than S. australis usually did — another indication these rogue orchids might not be S. australis, Suetsugu told CNN in an email.
“This led us to investigate further,” Suetsugu said.
From 2012 to 2022, he and his colleagues searched for the hairless orchids and analyzed the plants’ physical features, genetics and means of reproduction. Because Spiranthes species often overlap geographically and can look alike, “it is important to have a comprehensive understanding of the distribution and ecology of related species to distinguish the unique features of a new species,” he said.
Colors of S. hachijoensis blooms varied “from purple-pink to white,” with petals measuring 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 close match to S. hongkongensis and S. nivea, but minute physical differences and genetic analysis confirmed it was unique. In addition to the Tokyo population, 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 familiar orchid in Japan and has been cherished for centuries,” he said, adding that the flower is mentioned in Japan’s oldest anthology of poetry that dates to 759.
Identifying new plant species in Japan is an uncommon event, with the nation’s flora 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 concealed in common locales underscores the necessity of persistent exploration, even in seemingly unremarkable settings!” 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 newfound “ladies’ tresses” is a hallmark of orchids — but so is vulnerability. There are about 28,000 known orchid species worldwide. However, habitat loss has endangered many species, and the flowers’ popularity won’t save them if they aren’t protected.
“Orchids have closely interwoven 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 forms and colors. It’s this emotional response that hopefully encourages and inspires people to take action to safeguard them.”