(CNN) Sometimes new species of flowers lurk where scientists least expect to see them – in parks, gardens and even balcony planters.
There Japanese scientists recently identified a new species of orchid whose pink and white blooms are so delicate and fragile that they look as if they were spun from glass.
The newly described flower is a neighbor of populations of related orchid species common in Japan, which it closely resembles. Its discovery is an important reminder that unknown species often live right under our noses, researchers reported Friday in the Journal of Plant Research.
“The incredible diversity of the Orchidaceae family is truly amazing, and new discoveries like this Spiranthes reinforce the need to study and protect these botanical gems,” Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection head horticulturist Justin Kondrat told CNN in an email. . Kondrat was not involved in the investigation.
Orchids of this genus – Spiranthes – are called “women’s lungs” because they resemble wavy hairpins. Spirants have a central stem around which grows an ascending spiral of small, bell-shaped flowers that can be white, pink, purple or yellow.
About 50 species of Spiranthes are 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.
In Tokyo Prefecture, near Hachijo Island, populations of the flower newcomer that inspired the species name Spiranthes hachijoensis were found. 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, in a study conducted in mainland Japan more than a decade ago, study lead author Kenji Suetsugu, a professor in Kobe University’s Department of Biodiversity, Ecology and Speciation, found something unusual: flowers that were supposed to be S. australis but had smooth stems. (S. australis typically has hairy stems.)
The hairless populations also bloom about a month earlier than S. australis usually does — another indication these rogue 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 will search for hairless orchids and analyze the plants’ physical characteristics, genetics and means of reproduction. Because Spiranthes species often overlap geographically and can look similar, “it’s 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.
S. hachijoensis blooms ranged in color from “purple to white,” and the petals were about 0.1 to 0.2 inches (3 to 4 millimeters), the researchers reported.
S. hachijoensis had smaller flowers, wider bases and straighter central petals than other Spiranthes species; it also lacked a self-pollinating structure. Morphologically, it was a close match to S. hongkongensis and S. nivea, but minor physical differences and genetic analysis confirmed it to be unique. In addition to the Tokyo population, the authors of the study found S. hachijoensis elsewhere in the Kanto region and in the regions of Kyushu, Shikoku and Chubu.
“We were excited to identify a new species of Spiranthes,” said Suetsugu. “Spiranthes is Japan’s most familiar orchid and has been cherished for centuries,” he said, adding that the flower is mentioned in Japan’s oldest poetry anthology, dating back to 759.
The identification of new plant species in Japan is a rare event, and the country’s flora has been extensively documented and studied. The discovery is likely to spark interest in the flower, which is much rarer than S. australis, he added.
“This discovery of new species tucked away in common areas underscores the need for continued exploration, even in seemingly insignificant conditions!” Suetsugu said via email. “It also highlights the continued need for taxonomic and genetic research to accurately assess species diversity.”
The fragile beauty of the new “lady trees” is a hallmark of orchids – but so is vulnerability. Around 28,000 species of orchids are known in the world. However, the loss of habitats has threatened many species, and the popularity of flowers will not save them if they are not protected.
“Orchids have close connections in so many ecosystems and in different aspects of science and culture,” Kondrat said. “People can’t help but be captivated by their many shapes and colors. This emotional response will hopefully encourage and inspire people to take action to protect them.”