Strange underground plant re-discovered after more than 150 years

Thismia neptunis

An extraterrestrial-like plant has been rediscovered 150 years after its last sighting. Located in the depths of the Malaysian land, it blooms only once a year.

First observed by Italian botanist Odoardo Beccari in 1866, Thismia neptunis disappeared from circulation during the next century and a half. But in 2017, scientists were able to rediscover this unique plant during its annual flowering, which pushed it out of its underground hiding place.

Odoardo Beccari discovered the plant the first time in the Gunung Matang massif in Borneo. He produced a splendid illustration: a translucent stem bearing an incredible and delicate vegetable cut, itself adorned with three long vertical protuberances resembling antennas. Measuring just 9 centimeters, the flower knows how to be discreet, but once spotted, it becomes difficult to ignore.

A team of Czech researchers visited the site in January 2017 and had the exceptional opportunity to observe the plant in its natural habitat. “Its discretion may limit our knowledge of its distribution,” they write in their study. “We are providing […] the first photographic documentation of this iconic plant and, because of its strange appearance and almost mythical name.”

It is not only the scarcity of the plant but also its way of life that interests scientists. Thismia neptunis is a mycoheterotrophic plant: rather than relying on photosynthesis to live, it establishes a parasitic relationship with fungi, from which it extracts nutrients. Without leaves or chlorophyll, the plant can live underground all year long without worrying about the amount of sunshine.

T. neptunis only flowers for a short time each year, and it is possible for a long time to pass until the next observation of these “fairy lanterns,” as they are baptized. A very strange plant, which proves once again that we have only scratched the surface of terrestrial biodiversity.

Eid Lee

Eid is a freelance journalist from California. He covers different topics for The Talking Democrat but focuses mostly on technology and science.