Rare species of fairy lantern flower found in Japanese forest


If you’ve never heard of the delicate plants known as fairy lanterns, you’re not alone: ​​They’re so rare that many species of them are considered extinct. But news that Japanese scientists have rediscovered a species thought to be lost forever could reignite interest in the tiny, colorful plants that look like they’re lit up from within.

The researchers write in the journal Phytotaxa and tell how they found evidence for it Thismia kobensisa type of fairy lantern plant first discovered in Kobe, Japan, still exists.

A single specimen of the small plant had been discovered in the city in 1992, but after the site was destroyed to make way for an industrial complex in 1999, the plant was thought to have been killed.

But in June 2021, a botanist saw a fairy lantern on a nature trail in a forest north of the industrial plant, the researchers write. A search yielded three specimens—enough for researchers to analyze its flowers, collect DNA from a dried part of one of the plants, and more thoroughly describe the species.

The hairy flower has a clear, glossy base and a yellow-orange tube that contains its stamens. Like other Thismia, it draws its energy not from the sun, but from decaying organic matter in dirt. The organisms, known as saprophytes, are usually found in tropical areas.

The researchers believe that the similarity between the Kobe flower and one seen on a prairie near Chicago more than 100 years ago may indicate that the two are related. They speculate that migration across the land bridge between Asia and North America may explain the connection.

The discovery is a win for botanists, but researchers warn that the plants remain critically endangered and are threatened by foot traffic along the nature trail.

Meanwhile, the hunt for Thismia americana, the fairy lantern last seen in Chicago in 1916, continues. Some botanists are “sure it’s still out there, thriving incognito on the remaining prairies,” according to Chicago’s Field Museum. To learn more about the elusive plant, visit bit.ly/Thismia.

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