The world’s largest giant water lily from Bolivia’s wetlands, a spiny mushroom named after the queen, and an endangered herb from pigeon droppings are among more than 100 plants and fungi recorded as new to science in 2022 by Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.
Several of the discoveries, including a tall tree from the Brazilian Atlantic Forest and a busy lizzie from Cameroon, are extremely rare, and one is already considered globally extinct. It is estimated that two out of five plants globally are at risk of extinction.
The Kew scientists said their efforts to name new species, working with partners, were part of a global effort to protect the planet’s biodiversity and help humanity too. An average of 2,000 new species of plants and fungi are named each year, revealing the complexity of the tree of life, as well as potential new sources of food, medicine and further innovation.
“It’s easy to think you have a perfect understanding of the natural world and all its plants and fungi, but as these yearly lists show us time and time again, we’ve only scratched the surface of the discovery,” said Dr. Cheek, senior lead researcher on Kew’s Africa team. “We cannot stop the biodiversity crisis if we don’t know exactly what we are saving and where”.
This year’s discoveries include the queen’s hedgehog, a white mushroom with soft spines under its cap instead of gills, which DNA analysis has revealed to be a distinct European species and not the North American mushroom it was once thought to be. It was named in honor of Queen Elizabeth II.
Dr Tuula Niskanen, research leader in Kew’s fungal diversity team, said around 2 million fungal species – more than 90 per cent of all fungi – have yet to be described by science. She said: “Fungi have remained such a mystery to us, compared to plants and many animals, because their cryptic lives take place mostly hidden from our eyes and have been difficult to study with traditional techniques. Only in the last few decades, thanks to the arrival of DNA-based methods, have we begun to understand the true diversity of this realm.”
DNA analysis also confirmed the discovery of the gigantic Bolivian water lily from the Amazon wetlands, with leaves measuring up to 3.3 meters in diameter. Two formerly known species in the Victoria genus of water lilies were both named in the early 19th century and have long been popular attractions in botanic gardens. Unknown to Kew researchers, a dried specimen of the giant Bolivian water lily was stored in Kew’s herbarium for more than 170 years before it was revealed as a new species.
A new species of leafy grass, Gomphostemma phetchaburiense, is classified as “critically endangered” in the wild because its total population is less than 50 plants, all of which are found at the mouth of a limestone cave in Southeast Asia. The remaining plants are particularly threatened by the droppings of a nearby rock-pigeon colony.
Another recently discovered plant was considered globally extinct before it could be formally confirmed as new to science and named. Saxicolella deniseae, a grass adapted to living in fast-flowing waters, was first collected from the Konkouré River of Guinea, West Africa, and named in honor of its collector, Denise Molmou. But a hydroelectric dam was built 20 miles downstream, producing a reservoir that submerged waterfalls on the lower reaches of the Konkouré and its tributaries, leading to the plant’s probable demise.
This year’s fieldwork found that another new discovery, Ipomea aequatoriensis, is a relatively common weedy flowering plant in coastal Ecuador. It has been identified as a putative ancestor of the sweet potato – a major food crop in tropical America – and new knowledge of its relatives could lead to the breeding of improved strains for the benefit of mankind.
Kew’s top 10 plant and mushroom discoveries
1. Queen Hedgehog (Hydnum reginae)
A rare European species known in Britain only from the species-defining specimen, which was found in the ancient beech woodland of White Down, Surrey. Formerly known as Hydnum albiduma name native to North America, a collaboration of British mycologists and Kew experts has led to its description as a distinct European species.
2. Carpotroche caceresiae
A tree from the Caribbean rainforests of Nicaragua and Honduras, named in recognition of the bravery of Berta Isabel Cáceres Flores (1971–2016), one of at least 123 environmental activists murdered in Honduras between 2009 and 2016 for opposing destruction of natural habitats.
3. The gigantic Bolivian water lily (Bolivian victory)
A species confined to the wetlands of Amazonian Bolivia. A partnership of 16 Bolivian and European botanists working with Kew experts led to its nomination as new to the science.
4. Gomphostemma phetchaburiense
A leafy herb with pink-purple flowers and a new species in the genus Gonfostemmawhich means “garland of nails”.
5. Saxicolella deniseae
A family of grasses known as “waterfall orchids” because they are adapted to living in aerated whitewater which is too harsh an environment for many plants. Some species are only found on one or two waterfalls. Despite their common name, they are not orchids.
6. Turkish “winter daffodil” (Sternbergia mishustiniii)
First collected from the seed of an unknown bulbous plant near Mersin in southern Turkey in 1997 by Ukrainian naturalist Ruslan Mishustin of Kherson State University. It took years of research for it to be identified as a distinct species. Plants of the genus Sternbergia contain anti-inflammatory and antioxidant compounds, making this new species a potentially untapped source of medicines.
7. Cyanoboletus mediterraneensis
A new species of Mediterranean boletus, the mushroom has been found in northern Israel and Sardinia, Italy. Parts of the brown cap and lemon-yellow stem turn dark blue when handled or damaged.
8. Impatiens banen
A threatened species of busy lizzie found in Ebo Forest, Cameroon, and named after the Banen, the defenders of the forest and nature reserve. Ebo Forest is still under threat of deforestation despite logging being halted in 2020 following protests.
9. Ipomea aequatoriensis
For many years, the parent species of the popular sweet potato remained a mystery, but scientists have discovered that this flowering plant from coastal Ecuador is the closest relative.
10. Eugenia paranapanemensis
A tree that grows up to 27 meters tall (equivalent to an eight-story building) and which is found only in the last remnants of Brazil’s threatened Mata Atlântica rainforest. Critically endangered, only three mature trees have been found so far.