Thismia neptunis, after 150 years of invisibility has returned to view. The flower comes from a family of plants often referred to as ‘Fairy Lanterns’. Thismia neptunis is notable for many things including the fact that it is a mycoheterotroph. Mycoheterotrophs are flowering plants that have abandoned photosynthesis, making them parasitic plants.
Mycoheterotrophs have to derive their nutrients from another plant, which is why many call them ‘parasitic’. Because the Thismia neptunis does not need to rely on photosynthesis it is able to live underground and away from sunlight. Thismia neptunis, “obtain [its] nutrition indirectly from the plant via a mycorrhizal fungus.” This fungus attaches itself to the photosynthetic plant and acts as a bridge between the plant and Thismia neptunis so that nutrients can flow from plan root to the fungus bridge and finally to the Thismia neptunis.
Thismia neptunis was first recorded 151 years ago by an Italian botanist named Odoardo Beccari. While on a trip to the jungles of Malaysia he stumbled across the supremely alien looking Thismia neptunis. The Thismia neptunis la on the rich, wet dirt of the rainforest in an area called Matang massif, alongside a river. Although he was sure it was a plant...it was unlike any plant he had ever come across. It had no leaves, no chlorophyll, and didn’t appear to perform photosynthesis. Furthermore, it also appeared to flourish underground. To Beccari, it seemed more like a fungus...or even an insect.
The plant itself was odd looking, to say the least. It has a creamy, white stem that poked up from the ground ever-so-slightly. The bulb on top almost looks like a dirty q-tip (seriously). It is pale with orange coloring at the top, and, at the very top of the bulb...an opening “like the mouth of a sea-worm.” One of the most interesting aspects of the flower are the three “red, hairy appendages sticking straight up like a shrimp’s long antennae from flat protrusions around the bulb -- part of its pollen-producing organ.” Underneath the stem is a simple root system whose aim is to collect nutrients from underground fungi.
On his 1866 trip, Beccari did not have a camera to document his findings. So, he illustrated the strange plant and made several notes on this new, bizarre species. After this, the strange plant was never seen or documented again.
Recently, however, the Thismia neptunis has come back to greet us. In a new paper published in the academic journal, Phyotaxa on Feburary 21st, 2018 a group of Czech researchers believe it is “only the second finding of the species in total."
Thismia neptunis lives most of its life underground and only appears above-ground when it flowers...and flowering is rare. Although we don’t know for sure it is possible that blooms only appear a few weeks at a time or, potentially, not even every year.
The researchers who recently re-discovered the plant still aren’t quite sure how the plant pollinates. But, interestingly enough, two different species of dead flies were found inside the flower. It is surmised that these may act as pollinators.
Finding Thismia neptunis is part of an on-going research effort to discover “long-lost” plants and flowers. Researchers on this project hope that they may continue discovering more long-lost lants from Beccari’s time in Malaysia. There is hope that this goal could be accomplished, thanks to the fact that where Beccari once researched and where the scientists are now “has remained largely undisturbed.”
the image above: Thismia neptunis Becc. Beccari, O., Malesia, vol. 1: t. 11, fig. 6 (1877-1883) [O. Beccari]. It is in the public domain.