Thismia megalongensis – a New Plant is Discovered

Less than 10kms/6mi from my home in a deep, but well-known and easily accessible rainforest gorge, a new species of flower has been discovered.

Thismia megalongensis, a member of the Thismiaceæ (or  Burmanniaceæ depending on which texts you read) family, is commonly known as the ‘Fairy Lantern’ flower – mostly found in the tropics – with the exception of a few temperate species found in Japan, New Zealand, Australia and Illinois in the US.

This is a very small gorge (about the size of a large city block) that is about ½ way down between the upper mountains and the Megalong Valley floor below, so it has a warmer climate than where I live, even though it is just a 15 minute drive away.

The pictures below show the rainforest environment: the trees are all native sassafras (Doryphora sassafras) and coachwood (Ceratopetalum apetalum) and in these sorts of wet, sheltered and ancient environments free from bush-fires, Eucalypts have never been able to get a foothold to out-compete the rainforest species.

These pictures are all courtesy of Google:

The full paper is available from this link, but a very brief summary, and pictures are below. All of these pictures and text below are courtesy of ‘Telopea’, University of Sydney, which is available at the hyperlink.

The flower that emerges from above the leaf litter is about the size of your little fingernail:

Thismia_Megalongensis

Thismia Megalongensis. Photo: Colin Hunt

Detail of flower/fruit/seeds:

Thismia_Megalongensis1

Thismia megalongensis. Photo: Colin Hunt

Detail of flower in situ and comparison with other known Fairy Lantern species from  Bundanoon (Southern Highlands) and the Grose Valley on the other side of Blackheath (this is the valley that appears in all of the views from my house):

Thismia_Megalongensis2

Thismia Megalongensis. Photo: Vincent Merckx

Thismia megalongensis is an ancient species that sprouted around the time of the dinosaurs. It has no real roots, but feeds off decaying leaf litter and fungus on the forest floor. It uses gnats and other insects to pollinate it, having evolved long before bees.

As pretty & unusual as this summer rain-forest flower is, it may not be what you want in your garden. Given that it has a symbiotic relationship with soil fungus, when it first appears it smells like stinky gym-shoes and then as the flower opens, rotting fish to attract its insect pollinators.

But, with so many plants and animals being wiped out each and every day, it’s always heartening when scientists discover something new, especially so close to a big city like Sydney, and even though this post wasn’t about my own garden, I hope you’ll allow me the diversion as it is forecast to be cold and wet all week, with temperatures no higher than 14°C/57°F.

IMG_1078

The usual view to the Grose Valley, shrouded in fog and drizzle

Happy Gardening 🙂

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44 thoughts on “Thismia megalongensis – a New Plant is Discovered

      • Colin Hunt says:

        Thanks Matt,
        The photo (fig3 f) by Vincent of the Thismia in the Grose valley is reasuring evidence that this group of plants is not restricted to just the Megalong valley.Hopefully more field work will show us the full extent of their occurence.

        The fraggrances have been hyped by the media. They are barly noticeable unless you get you nose right in there. The conditions needed for these plants to exist would preclude their turning up in peoples gardens. They really do need to have habitat protected so that they can have a chance of a secure future.
        Regards Colin

        Liked by 1 person

      • These little gems certainly are worth protecting! It’s odd, with the climate warming, in places like Wentworth Falls and Bullaburra I see young stands of (what appears to be self-sown) Sassafras/Coachwood growing on vacant land/roadside verges in the towns, so maybe eastward areas of the mid-upper mountains could be suitable habitat….

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    • Oh yes, heaps. But you have to be careful in terms of picking times to go walking and weather conditions. The land around here is true wilderness and you need to channel your inner Bear Grylls if you venture any further than the typical tourist trails

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    • Yes, I was wondering the same thing, as it has been reported in the paper. Hopefully it doesn’t get trampled by tourists, pilfered by plant collectors. I believe seeds have been sent to seed banks in Canberra and London

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  1. After reading an article this weekend describing the last 5 white rhinos known to exist, it’s comforting to know that there are species that have managed to steer clear of destructive forces.

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  2. That must have been an exciting discovery and its surely a hopeful sign too. Working to just manage, let alone halt the destruction of the natural world is going to take massive amounts of effort.

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    • I always admire the work of the planthunters and discovers as it must take incredible patience to not only spot the plant, but then wait for it to flower and be identified…all of which can take years!

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  3. I’m always fascinated by much is still in the dark waiting to be explored…or maybe it’s not waiting ;). Your gorge looks like a magical place which I’d love to visit. You can spend ages in such places without tiring or getting bored. As much as I like eucalyptus I do realise that it’s quite a thug. I took a cutting of Solanum mauritianum last autumn and it was only when I got home and identified the plant that I became aware of its invasiveness in other parts, Cutting’s doing well but I doubt the climate will encourage it to turn into a thug, fingers crossed.

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    • It is fascinating to see the patches of rainforest sheltered in gullies, especially when you look across the top of the Eucalypt forests. Where the soil is poor and sandy, the rainforest can’t get a foothold as the interior winds dry out the land, so in that regard the Eucalypts at least help provide shelter to the rainforest

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  4. A lovely and very delicate looking tiny plant. The sort of thing that you just don’t notice when you are bumbling along in your 4×4 squishing the wildlife. It must also be a very smart plant as it has managed to situate itself in a highly inaccessible area. It looks like the middle of winter in your area not the middle of summer. Our season is on it’s head!

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    • They’re tiny alright – I do hope that visitors don’t tread all over them! The link in the Telopea article shows them in the wild and they’ve highlighted the picture – honestly, if they hadn’t circled them in the photo you wouldn’t easily pick them!

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      • Yeah, I was thinking at the time “why didn’t they just provide a gps reference so that EVERYONE could trample them into extinction ;). Seriously, they are teeny tiny but very pretty. Almost look like some of our native orchids in miniature don’t they 🙂

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      • Maybe their tiny size might do more to protect them but lets hope that all of the intrepid amateur horticulturalists and photographers are still too hung over from Australia Day celebrations to be bothered to go out hunting for them and they get to grow happily in their beautiful hidden grotto away for the world and carry on to grow another day 🙂

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  5. This is fascinating, Matt! Besides the fact that I never knew such plants exist (they seem to be leafless?) I have also been intrigued by your statement “and in these sorts of wet, sheltered and ancient environments free from bush-fires, Eucalypts have never been able to get a foothold to out-compete the rainforest species”. Please do us a post on Eucalypts! You most likely do not know that from +- mid 1800s to mid 1900s they were freely introduced to the relatively treeless grasslands of the South African hinterland and are important forestry trees in my immediate area. (We however grow pine.) Nearby (less than 10km) is the tallest planted tree in the world, a species of Eucalypt similar to my Big Tree I think, and of about the same vintage. They are such unique trees, and seemingly well adapted to survival beyond almost all other broadleafs. Can you source something on their evolution perhaps? And how it relates to the climate history of Australia? 🙂

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    • Hi Jack, I have never been to S.Africa, but I worked with a gent who had a farm on the lowveld and he told me of all the eucalypt plantations in any of the elevated areas.
      I know about the Limpopo tree; E. Saligna – about 80m. It is the Sydney Blue Gum. Even though I am part of the Sydney area, the sandy soil & high altitude makes it a little too cold to grow this tree successfully here, but we have a cool-climate equivalent with E. oreades while the mid-mountains has another similar one called E deanei. No matter what the species, all of these trees are tall straight white trunked beauties, growing between 45-80m.
      Eucalyptus’ dominance in the Australian landscape is quite contentious, but I am happy to put together a post…watch this space as they say 🙂

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  6. What an unusual plant, I have to admit I expected something quite different when I picture a fairy lantern, but I guess the name still fits the actual plant. Great to find something new so close to home. Makes me wonder what’s in my on backyard.

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