Gastrodia agnicellus has been called the ugliest orchid in the world by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
Orchids are usually seen as beautifully coloured flowers, but a newly discovered species from Madagascar is far from pretty.
The plant, Gastrodia agnicellus, was discovered earlier this year in the deep shade underneath leaves on the forest floor in Madagascar. This small, brown orchid spends most of its life underground and has no leaves, only surfacing to produce fruit and disperse its seeds.
“I’m sure it’s mother thinks it’s very lovely,” says Johan Hermans at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in London, who discovered the species. Hermans says the name “agnicellus” comes from the Latin word for “little lamb” as it has a woolly, tuberous root. “With a bit of an imagination, you can almost see a lamb’s tongue in the flower.”
Like most orchids, this species is a perennial plant, meaning it could live for many years, and has a symbiotic relationship with a fungus. While other orchids only depend on their fungus symbiote for food at the start of their lives, Gastrodia agnicellus doesn’t have any cells for photosynthesis so relies on its fungus for its entire life.
Hermans expected the orchid to smell awful, as most plants that have this decaying look often smell like rotting flesh as a way to entice insect pollinators to help them reproduce. “It actually had quite a fresh, citrusy smell,” he says.
He also says that they still don’t know how this orchid is actually pollinated. “Orchids are particularly clever at adapting,” says Hermans, so it must have found a unique way to survive.
This new species was discovered in a tiny region of Madagascar, and it is thought that the extent of its range is very small and is declining, probably due to increased agriculture and fires in the area. As such, Gastrodia agnicellus has been classed as a threatened species.
Journal reference: Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, DOI: 10.1111/curt.12354
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