Each year, the Missouri Botanical Garden’s Science and Conservation staff discover and name about 200 plant species new to science. That’s roughly 10 percent of all plant species discovered by scientists worldwide annually.
Discovery is the first crucial step in plant conservation. Until a species is described, we cannot think about conservation status or ensure its survival. Once described, species need to be organized into meaningful classification systems. These classifications provide meaningful ways to talk about plants and plant diversity and are a basic need for other types of plant science.
We’re still counting the number of new species discovered by the Garden this year, but here are a few highlights so far.
New species: Ypsilopus iversenii
Type of plant: Orchid
Where it’s from: East Africa
Describers: Tania D’haijère and João N. M. Farminhão
Orchids have been a household favorite since the 19th century. Popular as an “exotic” plant, orchids can actually be found on every continent besides Antarctica with more than 28,500 species worldwide.
The plant, which produces glistening white flowers in October, is only known to grow in the Shagayu Forest Reserve in Tanzania at an altitude of 2,070. While it is preliminarily deemed critically endangered, its home in the Shagayu Forest Reserve has been under a joint forest management regime since 2002, meaning there may still be hope for its future.
This new species was described by two students of Garden Orchid Expert Tariq Stevart, who is a coauthor on the paper.
Milkweed among Mayan Cave paintings
New Species: Matelea falcata
Type of plant: Milkweed
Where it’s from: Mexico
Describers: Verónica Juárez-Jaimes and Gerald Matus Hernández-Barón (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México) and W. D. Stevens (Missouri Botanical Garden)
The Loltún grottos in Yucatán, Mexico are known for more than 100 Mayan cave paintings that adorn the walls, but near its entrance is the only known population of a species of milkweed with perfect pinwheel flowers.
The first specimen of this species was collected in 2012 by Miguel Ortiz during a botanical survey of the Loltún grottos region of Mexico. Scientists compared this new collection with older herbarium specimens and realized that they had a new species of Matelea, a genus that contains about 100 species commonly called milkvines. They published their results in 2021, dubbing their new species Matelea falcata in reference to its sickle-shaped petal lobes.
Given its location in a heavily-trafficked tourist destination, it seems likely Matelea falcata is vulnerable to extinction. In Missouri, milkweeds are a well-known food source for monarchs that migrate from Mexico to parts of the United States and Canada. While flowers of other species can serve as nectar sources for mature monarch butterflies, caterpillars feed exclusively on milkweeds and have evolved to digest the often-toxic milky sap produced by the plants. As a new species, Matelea falcata’s ecological relationships are still unknown, but it is likely food for non-migratory monarchs as well as other insects evolved to eat milkweed. Future ecological studies will determine what insects depend on Matelea falcata and that information may bolster the case for protection of this beautiful and rare species.
Protecting Highly Threatened Precious Wood Species
In Madagascar, tree species that produce “precious woods,” in particular ebonies and rosewoods, are threatened by deforestation and illegal, unsustainable harvesting for export. Many face a high risk of extinction. The Garden is working to save these species by carefully cataloguing them, refining information on the species that already have names, and describing those that are new to science.
New species: Dalbergia antsirananae and Dalbergia obcordata
Type of plant: Rosewood
Where it’s from: Madagascar
Describers: Pete Phillipson (Missouri Botanical Garden), Nic Wilding (University of La Réunion), Simon Crameri (ETH Zurich)
In 2021, researchers described two new species of rosewood, both from northeastern Madagascar. Dalbergia antsirananae is a tree found in three forest areas, and Dalbergia obcordata is a shrub known from just two isolated forest patches. Garden botanists also clarified the botanical names for two other species that had been widely confused.
These species are just the tip of the iceberg. Researchers estimate there to be about 100 rosewood species native to Madagascar, including 60 large tree species that can produce valuable timber. Garden botanists and their collaborators plan to publish a comprehensive volume on rosewoods in 2022.
New species: Diospyros antsirananae and Diospyros chitoniophora
Type of plant: Ebony
Where it’s from: Madagascar
Describers: Pete Lowry, Alex Linan, George Schatz, (Missouri Botanical Garden)
A whopping 40 new species of Diospyros were described in 2021, bringing the total number of large tree ebony species to 84 (out of a total of nearly 250 species that occur on Madagascar). Diospyros antsirananae is a small tree with thick leaves and rusty-brown fruits that is restricted to a dozen sites on the northern tip of the island. Diospyros chitoniophora, also found in the far north, has fruits with a distinctive skirt-like calyx at the base. Half of the species on Madagascar that are potential sources of valuable ebony wood are threatened with extinction.
The work being done on Dalbergia and Diospyros will allow the Malagasy government to develop an effective conservation plan for the species that are threatened while promoting sustainable harvesting of the others. This would have been impossible without the information provided by the Garden’s precious woods project.
New species: Monstera titanum and Monstera gigas
Type of plant: Monstera
Where it’s from: Panama
Describers: Thomas B. Croat (Missouri Botanical Garden), Marco Cedeño-Fonseca (Herbario Luis Fournier Origgi (USJ), Universidad de Costa Rica) and Orlando O. Ortiz (Departamento de Botánica & Herbario PMA, Universidad de Panama and Coiba Scientific Station (COIBA AIP)), Alejandro Zuluaga (Departamento de Biología, Universidad del Valle)
With its intricate “swiss cheese” leaves and relatively easy care, monstera are swiftly becoming one of the most popular houseplants in the world. True to its name, these decorative houseplants can grow to monstrous sizes in the wild.
In fact, in 2021, researchers described two record-setting Monstera. Monstera titanum, found in rainforests in central Panama, has the largest-known inflorescence (flowering structure) of any Monstera—larger than a human head. Monstera gigas, also from Panama, has the largest-known leaves in the genus that can grow to more than nine feet across.
Motel for Mites, Snack for Spectacled Bears
New species: Ocotea sacculifera
Type of plant: Laurel
Where it’s from: Bolivia
Describer: Henk van der Werff, Missouri Botanical Garden
The laurel family is perhaps best known for food-producing plants like avocado, cinnamon, and bay leaf, but its newest member’s ecorole is as a habitat for mites rather than food for humans. Although Andean bears, or spectacled bears, likely snack on its fruits.
Ocotea sacculifera is named for the small pouches found on the undersides of its leaves that serve as homes for mites. The mites protect the tree from diseases and from the attack of other herbivorous arthropods. Mites often get a bad rap due to a couple of problematic species, they play several essential roles in the ecosystem as biocontrol agents, decomposers, and links in the food chain of the soil ecosystem. Mites are understudied, meaning it’s possible these are a new species as well.
While this species is named for its mite habitat, several animals, including birds and spectacled bears, consume the fruits of Ocotea.
This new species was collected in the Andean mountains of Bolivia near the border with Peru as part of the Madidi Project, a multi-institutional project led by the Garden.
Peru Palm from Remote Region
Name of new species: Ceroxylon ravenii
Type of plant: Palm
Where it’s from: Peru
Describers: María Isabel Villalba and Luis Valenzuela (Missouri Botanical Garden)
This new species of palm tree comes from Cordillera Azul National Park in Peru, a remote region that has only been visited by a handful of biologists. The Garden has been conducting exploration of the area in the last four years and has discovered several new species of plants. Ceroxylon ravenii is named for Dr. Peter Raven, President Emeritus of the Missouri Botanical Garden. The species is distinctive from others in the genus as it lacks a stem. It is known from only a single deep forest location where 40 individuals were found.
Essential Bat Food
Name of new species: Burmeistera crocodila
Type of plant:lobelioid, Bellflower family
Where it’s from: Ecuador
Describers: Brock Mashburn (University of Missouri St. Louis, Missouri Botanical Garden), Nathan Muchhala (University of Missouri St. Louis)
This species of bellflower has vivid violet flowers and fruits, but its leaves were what stood out to researchers. Bearing a striking resemblance to crocodile scales, researchers named this species Burmeistera crocodila. It is one of six new species of Burmeistera from Ecuador discovered in 2021. Burmeistera are pollinated by leaf nosed bats that are attracted to its musky-smelling flowers. Most Burmeistera flower throughout the year, providing a consistent food source for nectar-feeding bats that must feed frequently to support flight. Many bats revisit the same plant over and over, potentially for years, making Burmeistera critical to their survival.
But Burmeistera face threats from humans. They are typically an understory species, so if a forest is logged, Burmeistera disappear. And they don’t return easily to regenerated forest.
Identifying new species like Burmeistera crocodila, which is in only one small area of a forest, is crucial to making conservation decisions. Now scientists know the importance of protecting their native area, because once it is removed, they will be lost forever.
Colombia Coffee Creates Connections
Name of new species: Palicourea santanderiana
Type of plant: Coffee
Where it’s from: Colombia
Describers: Charlotte M. Taylor (Missouri Botanical Garden)
Palicourea santanderiana is from the Magdalena River valley, a region in northern Colombia that is rich in plant species but has not been well explored botanically due in part to active guerrilla armies in the area, until the recently signed April 19, 2015 Peace Agreement.
Charlotte Taylor identified the new species, a member of the coffee family with bright white flowers and vivid blue bird-dispersed fruits, from specimens collected several decades ago. Apparently no botanists had been back to this region since, but when Taylor published the species, a young scientist in Colombia working on ecological restoration in the Magdalena River valley reached out and sent a photo of Palicourea santanderiana to confirm he had correctly identified it.
He had, and Taylor was delighted to see the new generation of botanists actively working in the field to know and conserve the flora.
New Genus of One of World’s Oldest Plants
New genus: Brownseya
Type of plant: Lycophyte
Where it’s from: Oceania
Describers: Li-Bing Zhang (Missouri Botanical Garden), Lara D. Shepherd (Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa), De-Kui Chen (College of Life Sciences, Chongqing Normal University, CAS Key Laboratory of Mountain Ecological Restoration and Bioresource Utilization, Chengdu Institute of Biology & No. 1 Middle School of Tongren), Xin-Mao Zhou (School of Ecology and Environmental Science, Yunnan University) and Hai He (College of Life Sciences, Chongqing Normal University)
Lycophytes have one of the oldest lineages of living plants, dating back to roughly 420 million years ago. Early lycophyte provided the foundation on which other terrestrial life depended because they were the first plants to evolve roots and leaves, first to colonize drier habitats, and first to create forests.
Today, lychophytes continue to play an important role in life on earth, often determining the plant makeup of entire ecosystems.
Brownseya, a new genus of lycophytes, plays an essential role in maintaining wetlands in its native Oceania. The genus includes 2-4 species characterized by long-stalked stems and spirally arranged leaves.
With global warming, habitats like the swamps where Brownseya grows are more important and vulnerable than ever before.
Long Lost Liverwort
New species: Frullania tibetica
Type of plant: Liverwort
Where it’s from: Tibet
Describers: Yuriy S. Mamontov (Tsitsin Main Botanical Garden, Russian Academy of Sciences and Polar-Alpine Botanical Garden-Institute, Russian Academy of Sciences) and John J. Atwood (Missouri Botanical Garden)
The Garden’s herbarium, one of the largest in the world holding more than 7.5 million specimens, is key to its discovery work. With a large backlog of unidentified specimens, Garden researchers frequently identify new species from plants collected decades ago.
Among the 7.5 million specimens is a herbarium of 600,000 bryophytes, flowerless plants that include liverworts and mosses. Researchers recently identified a new species of liverwort from a specimen collected in 1980 and sent to the Garden as exchange material from the Beijing Herbarium. The collected material is roughly the size of a bottle cap, but the species, Frullania tibetica, was charismatic enough that even with such scant material, researchers knew it was unique. Perhaps most notably its perianth, a sheath surrounding the developing spore-bearing structure, is conspicuously armed with spinose outgrowths in a remarkable way.
Many liverworts have medicinal properties and can be used to create antimicrobials, antifungals, and insect antifeedants. Species of Frullania are known to produce compounds with antiseptic and antitumor activity. Until Frullania tibetica can be studied chemically, its potential human use remains unknown.It is unknown how many wild populations of Frullania tibetica remain. Its sparse label, written entirely in Chinese, revealed only a broad location information—Nyingchi City, Tibet. The species doesn’t yet have a conservation status. Bryophytes often aren’t given global conservation status like flowering plants, but some scientists are beginning to assess bryophytes following IUCN guidelines.
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Photo Credits: Daniel Mauricio Diaz Rueda, Nivo Rakotoarivelo, Richard Randrianaivo, Marco Cedeño Fonseca, Leon Perrie, S. T. (Iversen) Båtvik, Miguel Ortiz, Henk van der Werff, Nathan Muchhal, John J. Atwood, Laurent Gautier, Luis Valenzuela