‘Voodoo’ Lily, ‘DiCaprio’ Tree Among 200+ Unknown Plant Species Identified by Scientists
An orchid that grows in complete darkness, a pink “voodoo” lily, an “exploding firework” flower, a rare tooth fungus — these are among the more than 200 plants scientists from around the world discovered in 2021.
In fact, yesterday, an international team of researchers published their detailed discoveries in a paper in PeerJ. Among them, was a tropical tree from the Ebo Forest in Cameroon, a country in Central Africa. The newly discovered species was named Uvariopsis dicaprio after the Don’t Look Up (2021) actor, Leonardo DiCaprio, who, according to the researchers, has been instrumental in conservation efforts. This is, reportedly, “the first new plant species to be described in 2022.”
However, even as we continue to discover new species of plants, scientists are worried we may be losing them to extinction faster than we can find them. Especially so, since a study from 2020 found that 40% of the world’s plant species — every two in five — are facing the risk of extinction due to environmental exploitation by humankind. In the process, however, we are losing vast treasure troves of biodiversity before even realizing how beneficial they could be both medicinally and ecologically.
“There are still thousands of plant species and maybe millions of fungal species out there that we don’t know about…This natural habitat that they’re growing in — especially forests, but other habitats, too, is increasingly and more rapidly being destroyed by us humans without knowing what’s there,” Martin Cheek from the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew in the U.K., who co-authored yesterday’s study, told BBC News.
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“So many of our medicines come directly from plants or are inspired by compounds that come out of plants… If we make species extinct before we can even look at what chemicals are inside them, isn’t that bonkers?” Cheek noted.
According to the 2020 study, almost four billion people rely on herbal medicines as their primary source of healthcare, and 723 species used medicinally are already threatened with extinction.
And it’s not just medicines that plants provide. Just last year, researchers discovered a wild tobacco plant in Australia that traps and kills insects, and may potentially serve as a “natural insecticide” of sorts. “Nicotiana insexticida demonstrates well the adage that ‘tobacco kills‘… although in this case, it is insects that become ensnared on its sundew-like glandular hairs and die,” Mark Chase, a scientist at the Royal Botanic Gardens in the U.K., who was involved in the discovery, said in a statement.
Chase believes the plant could serve as a “biological control agent” for killing fungus gnats and other undesirable insects in greenhouses — serving as an environment-friendly alternative to chemical-based pesticides and insecticides. The chemicals not only contaminate the environment but can also be toxic to animals — and even humans — who consume the plants exposed to chemicals. They can harm the human nervous system, endocrine system, and reproductive system too.
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Experts believe that the primary threat to plant species is the destruction of wild habitat to cultivate more land for agriculture. In addition, they believe invasive species, urbanization and development, pollution, and obviously, the climate crisis are all contributing to the threat.
“The thousands of neglected plant species are the lifeline to millions of people on Earth tormented by unprecedented climate change, pervasive food and nutrition insecurity, and [poverty]…” Stefano Padulosi, a former senior scientist at the Alliance of Biodiversity International, who was involved in the 2020 study, had said. “Harnessing this basket of untapped resources for making food production systems more diverse and resilient to change should be our moral duty.”
At this juncture, it’s like a “race against time” to identify new species of flora before we manage to push them to extinction forever.
“It’s almost bewildering that we’re still discovering so many… But now is our last chance to find unknown species, name them and hopefully protect them before they become globally extinct,” Cheek told The Guardian, adding, “Who knows how many thousands of plant species it will be revealed in future to have likely become extinct… It’s sickening.”