Science & Technology

This Bizarre Underground Flower Just Popped Up for the First Time in 151 Years

In "Little Shop of Horrors," Seymour Krelborn makes a once-in-a-lifetime discovery: a strange plant from outer space that grows unlike any other and feeds off of an unusual source. But after 150 years of hiding, a plant here on Earth is proving that such things are already among us. It's just that they're underground, not out in space (and they don't eat people).

Peeka-bloom

In 1866, Odoardo Beccari became the first person to spot the Thisma neptunis. And for 150 years, he was also the last. But in 2017, a team of researchers from the Czech Republic re-made history when they discovered the weird little bloom poking out of the mud near a river in Borneo. The flower had just been living there, minding its own business. When you only show your face for a couple of weeks per year, and you live in the undergrowth of the Sarawak rainforest, it might be a while between human visitors.

Also called a fairy lantern (not to be confused with the much more common lily with the same nickname), the bizarre-looking bloom can be hard to spot at just 3.5 inches (9 centimeters) tall. But if it does catch your attention, it's not likely to lose it. The strangely fleshy flower features three vertical spindles arranged almost like antennae — it truly looks like something out of "Aliens." That certainly caught Beccari's attention in 1866, and it's a good thing. Thanks to his spur-of-the-moment illustration of the flower, we can say with absolute certainty that this new blossom is of the same type.

Living Underground

That weird little flower is only a part of T. neptunis, though. It only pops up once a year, in order to tempt passing pollinators and propagate the species. But that might make you question exactly how this plant works. The blossom doesn't have any green chlorophyll, and it sure isn't gathering sunlight underground. So how does it sustain itself? Simple — it gets by with the help of its friends. This flower likes to party with some real fungi.

T. neptunis is what's called a mycoheterotroph, which survive by leeching off of underground mushrooms, which in turn rely on photosynthesizing plants above ground. Although the aboveground portion of the fairy lantern is strange to behold, at least it looks somewhat like a flower. Below the surface, the plant takes the form of a winding network of roots extending from a central bulb, searching for a fungus to attach to. You know, every time you think you've got a handle on how the ecosystem works, Mother Nature throws another curve ball at you.

The fairy lantern might be one of the strangest rare plants out there, but it's not the only one. Come along on a mission to save the planet's strange and endangered plant species in Carlos Magdalena's "The Plant Messiah." We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Reuben Westmaas March 22, 2018

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