The world’s largest waterlily, a long-lost relative of the sweet potato, and an herb that grows exclusively in rapids and waterfalls are among more than 100 new species of plant and fungi recorded by scientists at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, this year.
“It’s easy to think we have a picture-perfect understanding of the natural world and all its plants and fungi, but as these annual lists show us time and time again, we’ve only really scratched the surface of discovery,” Martin Cheek, senior research leader with Kew’s Africa Team, said in a statement.
Scientists highlighted 10 particularly notable species:
- Hydnum reginae, or Queen’s hedgehog, a lumpy, white fungi found in the ancient beech woodland in Surrey, England. Scientists described it as having an “ill-defined but pleasant, slightly sweet” odor and “mild, soapy then slowly slightly bitter” flavor.
- Carpotroche caceresiae, a tree discovered in the rainforests of Nicaragua and Honduras. The species was named in honor of Indigenous Honduran environmental activist Berta Cáceres, who was assassinated in 2016 by gunmen connected to a hydroelectric project that Cáceres had opposed. The new species, which produces a green fruit, had previously been mistaken for its relative, Carpotroche platypteraby, which produces a red fruit.
- Victoria boliviana, or the Bolivian waterlily. A dried specimen that had resided in Kew’s herbarium for 177 years was thought to be belong to the species Victoria amazonica before an examination of historical records and a DNA analysis revealed it to be a distinct species. Measuring more than 10 feet across, it is the largest waterlily on Earth.
- Gomphostemma phetchaburiense, a leafy herb with dark pink flowers. Just 50 such plants remain, all growing at the mouth of a limestone cave in southwest Thailand, where they remain threatened by the droppings of nearby rock pigeons.
- Saxicolella deniseae, an herb that grew in waterfalls and rapids on the Konkouré River in Guinea. It is believed to be extinct after its habitat was flooded by hydroelectric dams.
- Sternbergia mishustinii, a bulbous plant with non-opening yellow flowers. First collected southern Turkey in 1997, but it only recently identified as distinct species. Closely related plants contain anti-inflammatory and antioxidant compounds, suggesting the new species could be a source of medicine.
- Cyanoboletus mediterraneensis, a new species of Mediterranean bolete. The mushroom boasts a brown cap and lemon-yellow stalk that, much like humans, turns a deep blue when bruised.
- Impatiens banen, a threatened species of flower, marked by its intensely pink-purple petals. The plant is named for the Banen people of Cameroon, guardians of the forest of Ebo.
- Ipomoea aequatoriensis, the long-lost relative of the sweet potato. Scientists believe the newly discovered species — which bears a stringy, pale root — likely played a role in the evolution of the modern sweet potato.
- Eugenia paranapanemensis, a myrtle tree growing in one of the last remnants of Brazil’s Atlantic Forest, which is threatened by deforestation. The tree, which can grow to more than 80 feet tall, produces a bright orange fruit that tastes like sour cherries and eucalyptus, scientists say. Only three mature trees have been found.
“Unfortunately, many of the species described this year have already been assessed as either Vulnerable or Critically Endangered with extinction, or are even already Extinct, highlighting the need to accelerate the rate at which we make new discoveries,” Cheek said. “We cannot put a stop to the biodiversity crisis unless we know exactly what it is we are saving and where.”