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Behold the World’s Ugliest Orchid, According to Botanists

Surprisingly, the plant’s fleshy, brown flowers don’t smell so bad

The flower of a newly discovered orchid species from Madagascar called Gastrodia agnicellus. It's looks are, shall we say, unconventional. (Rick Burian)
smithsonianmag.com

Discerning botanists have dubbed a newly discovered species of orchid from Madagascar the ugliest in the world, according to a statement from the United Kingdom’s Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew.

The orchid’s inglorious superlative appears in a list produced by the Royal Botanic Gardens highlighting 156 species of plants and fungi that were officially named in 2020. Other notable new species on the list include a species of toadstool discovered at London’s Heathrow airport and a strange, scaly-looking shrub that inhabits blazing hot salt pans in Namibia, reports Damian Carrington for the Guardian.

Tiganophyton karasense
This strange, scaly shrub, named Tiganophyton karasense, is one of 156 species on the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew's list highlighting exciting new species of plants and fungi that were officially named in 2020. The odd shrub grows in salt pans in the deserts of southern Namibia, and so defied categorization that botanists gave the plant its very own genus and family. (Wessel Swanepoel)

But even among these incredible 156 species, the ugly orchid has received top billing. Johan Hermans, a botanist at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, discovered the scruffy little plant, named Gastrodia agnicellus, lurking in the shaded undergrowth of a rainforest in Madagascar, reports Ibrahim Sawal for New Scientist.

“I’m sure its mother thinks it’s very lovely,” Hermans tells New Scientist. He says the name agnicellus derives from the Latin word for “little lamb,” a reference to the plant’s fuzzy tuberous root. “With a bit of an imagination, you can almost see a lamb’s tongue in the flower,” Hermans adds.

Gastrodia agnicellus has small, fleshy brown flowers, which according to the Guardian, the researchers think are probably pollinated by flies. The flower measures less than half an inch and has a “noticeable musk rose-like scent,” researchers tell the Guardian.

After the plant’s funky little flower has emerged from the forest’s leaf litter and been pollinated, the stalk grows to reach a height of nearly eight inches tall to dangle fruits that will ultimately disperse its dust-like seeds, Hermans tells CNN's Amy Woodyatt. Per the statement, the orchid has no leaves or any other means by which to turn the sun’s energy into food. Instead, the orchid relies on fungi for its sustenance.

Though Gastrodia agnicellus was discovered inside a protected national park, its range is tiny. This, combined with increasing agriculture and fires in the region, has caused researchers to immediately classify it as threatened, according to New Scientist.

In the statement, Martin Cheek, senior research leader at Kew, expressed excitement about the entire list of new plant and fungi species: “Some could provide vital income to communities while others may have the potential to be developed into a future food or medicine.” But, as is the case with this newly discovered orchid species that may not win any beauty contests, the threat of extinction looms over many of these species we are just now learning exist.

“The bleak reality facing us cannot be underplayed,” says Cheek. “With two in five plants threatened with extinction, it is a race against time to find, identify, name, and conserve plants before they disappear.”

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