'World's ugliest orchid' tops list of new discoveries

By Helen Briggs
BBC Environment correspondent

Image source, Rick Burian
Image caption,
Other discoveries by Kew include this not-so-showy orchid

The "ugliest orchid in the world" and British mushrooms are among a list of new species named by scientists at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and their collaborators in 2020.

Experts say the "weird and wonderful" plants and fungi highlight the incredible diversity of species still to be found and documented.

A third of the new species are orchids.

But scientists were surprised to find six new British toadstools, including one growing near Heathrow Airport.

Image source, Andy Overall
Image caption,
The mushrooms play a key role in carbon cycling in woodlands

The most unlikely discovery was a toadstool growing among trees beside a reservoir at Heathrow Airport, which was found by fungi expert Andy Overall.

"It's reddish-brown, doesn't blow your socks off to look at, but it's a special thing," he told BBC News.

Experts at Kew examined the specimen, and DNA studies later confirmed that it was new to science.

He has named the toadstool, Cortinarius heatherae, after his wife Heather.

Image source, Gabriel Mendes Marcusso
Image caption,
This bromeliad from Brazil grows on naturally exposed limestone

Two more species were found in England, one at Devil's Dyke in Sussex and the other in woods near Barrow-in-Furness.

Three new Scottish species were also identified; one at Caithness in the Highlands and two in the Black Wood of Rannoch.

All six species belong to a prolific group of fungi, known as web caps because they are covered by a cap of threads resembling spiders' webs.

The toadstools live in harmony with trees, helping the likes of oak, beech, birch and pine absorb water and nutrients.

Image source, Balakompalli
Image caption,
One of 19 new orchids from the tropical island of New Guinea

Kew expert Tuula Niskanen found two of the Scottish species, including Cortinarius aurae, which she named after her daughter, Aura.

"You don't need to go to the Amazon or Africa to find new fungi, you can find them close to you," she told BBC News. "Even in London you can find new species."

She said it was important to find and name new fungal species so that they can be better understood and protected.

We have a "Stone Age" level of knowledge about fungi compared with that of plants and animals, she added.

Image source, Enoc Jara
Image caption,
This pretty pink morning glory features tubers that could be a new food

New plants and fungi are still being discovered around the world, at the rate of about 2,000 a year.

Scientists at Kew and their collaborators have named and published scientific details of 156 species this year. Of these 27 are fungi, including six from the UK.

Dr Martin Cheek, a senior scientist at Kew, said there has been a bumper list of incredible newly named species this year. "It's pretty sensational to have six new species to science from the UK and it would only ever happen with fungi because of the fungi on our planet we know such a minute proportion of them."

A third of the new species are orchids. A total of 19 orchids were found on the island of New Guinea, which is a hotspot of biodiversity.

Another orchid, with small, brown flowers, was found in a forest in Madagascar. Kew scientists described it as "the ugliest orchid in the world".

Image source, Rbg Kew
Image caption,
One of two new species of Aloe found in a forest in Madagascar
Image source, Bart Wursten
Image caption,
This herb is from a family of medicinal plants

Other discoveries by scientists at Kew include:

  • A Peruvian plant related to the sweet potato which could be a future food source.
  • A strange scaly shrub that grows in arid regions of Namibia. The plant has scaly leaves and grows in hot natural sand pans. Fewer than 1,000 individual plants remain.
  • A Brazilian plant related to the pineapple, which is pollinated by hummingbirds. The bromeliad lives on a limestone cliff in central Brazil but is at risk due to extraction of limestone to make cement.
  • A shrub related to the blueberry found near the world's largest gold mine in Indonesian New Guinea.
  • A herb with medicinal properties found in a forest on the border between Zimbabwe and Mozambique.
  • Two new species of Aloe (as in Aloe vera) from Madagascar.

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