Nature's best-kept secrets: the most incredible plant finds of recent times

Horticultural delights

<p>Johan Hermans © RBG Kew</p>

Johan Hermans © RBG Kew

You might think that we've discovered all the plants on Earth, but scientists continue to find new species regularly, with hundreds discovered in the last few years alone. Some are unusual, from a 'ghost’ orchid which can grow in almost total darkness to a rare fungus with teeth. Others, like the world's largest water lily, have been hiding in plain sight for decades.

Read on for a round-up of the most incredible recent discoveries in the botanical world... 

The tiny survivor (Amalophyllon miraculum)

<p>John L. Clark</p>

John L. Clark

Standing at just two inches (5cm) tall, the amalophyllon miraculum may be small, but it's mighty. In fact, when researchers discovered the plant on the Western Andean slopes of Ecuador in June 2024, it sparked hope worldwide. Found in an area where scientists believed all native plants and animals had been wiped out by deforestation, this tiny plant was hailed as 'miraculous’ (hence the name), and seen as a sign that the region's biodiversity may not have suffered total extinction, as once feared.

An underground palm (Pinanga subterranea)

<p>William J Baker © RBG Kew</p>

William J Baker © RBG Kew

When a Malaysian researcher alerted scientists from Kew Gardens in London, England to a peculiar palm species in Borneo, they weren’t expecting to discover a first of its kind – a species of palm that fruits and flowers almost exclusively underground. Despite flying under the radar of scientists, largely due to its modest size and inconspicuous appearance, the newly named pinanga subterranea plant and its vivid red fruit were already known to locals, and it has various names in Bornean languages.

New genus (Relictithismia kimotsukiensis)

<p>Kenji Suetsugu/Kobe University</p>

Kenji Suetsugu/Kobe University

In 2024, Japanese scientists discovered not only a new species, but an entirely new genus – the country's first in nearly a century. Relictithismia kimotsukiensis was initially believed to be a new species of thismiaceae or 'fairy lantern' within the tanuki-no-shokudai genus, but analysis revealed distinct differences, leading to the creation of the genus mujina-no-shokudai. Unlike typical plants, fairy lanterns lack green leaves and rely on fungi for sustenance, not photosynthesis.


An unintentional discovery (Dendrobium lancilabium)

<p>Yanuar Ishaq Dwi Cahyo</p>

Yanuar Ishaq Dwi Cahyo

When a team of scientists embarked on a mission to rediscover the elusive blue orchid on the Indonesian island of Waigeo, their quest led them to the summit of Mount Nok, an extinct volcano, where they not only found the sought-after orchid but also stumbled upon several previously unidentified orchid species. Among these remarkable discoveries was dendrobium lancilabium, an orchid with spectacular bright red flowers. It was named after Mrs Wury, the wife of Indonesia’s vice-president.

Will catch, won't eat? (Crepidorhopalon droseroides)

<p>Bart Wursten</p>

Bart Wursten

During an exploration in Mozambique, field botanist Bart Wursten discovered a mysterious plant covered in sticky hairs, similar to those of the carnivorous sundew species. Named crepidorhopalon droseroides, meaning 'resembling a sundew,' it became the 34th identified species in the genus crepidorhopalon, but the only one with these unique glandular hairs. Although it attracts and traps insects, it's uncertain if it's truly carnivorous, needing further study to confirm if it can digest them for nutrients.

The luckiest orchid (Aeranthes bigibbum)

<p>Johan Hermans © RBG Kew</p>

Johan Hermans © RBG Kew

In a twist of fate, newly discovered orchid species aeranthes bigibbum could owe its existence to a bird on the island of Madagascar. In 2023, the plant was found within a small protected reserve, also home to the helmet vanga bird and its distinctive blue beak. Without the rare bird’s presence, it is thought the area would have fallen to deforestation – and the orchid with it.

The world's largest water lily (Victoria boliviana)

<p>Leon Neal/Getty Images</p>

Leon Neal/Getty Images

In July 2022, a brand new species of water lily was discovered in London, which had been hiding in Kew Gardens for 177 years. With lily pads reaching over 10 feet (3.2m) across, the newly discovered plant, which typically resides in Bolivia, has been named the largest water lily in the world. The incredible find marks the first discovery of a giant water lily in over a century, dubbed by scientists as 'one of the great botanical wonders of the world'. The water lily has been named Victoria boliviana in honour of its South American home.

Leonardo DiCaprio tree (Uvariopsis dicaprio)

<p>Lorna MacKinnon</p>

Lorna MacKinnon

The year 2022 also saw a new tree being named after Leonardo DiCaprio. The tropical tree, which is a member of the ylang-ylang family, was found in the Ebo Forest in Cameroon by scientists from Kew Gardens in London and Cameroon. Researchers chose the name because the actor and environmentalist had lobbied to prevent logging in the forest in 2020 – a decision which helped to protect many endangered and threatened species which may otherwise have become extinct.

Rare Cape primrose (Streptocarpus malachiticola)

<p>Julie Lebrun</p>

Julie Lebrun

One of five new Cape primroses found by researchers in 2021 was the streptocarpus malachiticola, a dainty flower discovered in the Katanga area of the Democratic Republic of Congo, known for its copper mining. In fact, the plant's name refers to malachite, the ore from which copper is extracted. Yet with copper being such an in-demand material, the plant’s future survival is on the line.


Bolivian periwinkle (Philibertia woodii)

<p>Fernando Zuloaga</p>

Fernando Zuloaga

With its bright yellow, star-shaped flowers, the Bolivian periwinkle is certainly one of the prettier plants found in 2021. But the species could also have medical potential. The periwinkle family has long been known to treat a wide range of conditions – chemicals found in Madagascar periwinkles have even been used in anti-cancer drugs. Scientists will analyse compounds in philibertia woodii and see if they are beneficial.

Killer tobacco plant (Nicotiana insecticida)

<p>Maarten Christenhusz</p>

Maarten Christenhusz

Found in the arid zones of Australia, this delicate-looking flower is surprisingly lethal – to bugs, that is. One of seven species of wild tobacco discovered in 2021, nicotiana insecticida is covered in sticky glands which help it trap and kill insects. Seeds of the deadly plant were collected off the Northwest Coastal Highway in Western Australia, before being taken to Kew Gardens, London to be studied by botanists.

Tree-dwelling orchid (Aerangis bovicornu)

<p>Johan Hermans</p>

Johan Hermans

An orchid species discovered in 2021 was the aerangis bovicornu, found in the Fianarantsoa province of south-central Madagascar. The pretty tree-dwelling flower is critically endangered, due to its habitat being cleared for the cultivation of pelargonium, grown increasingly in the region for the production of essential oils.

Yet another extinct orchid (Bulbophyllum cochinealloides)

<p>Johan Hermans</p>

Johan Hermans

Of 16 orchid species discovered by Kew researchers in 2021, three are thought to be extinct. They include this rosy-hued bulbophyllum cochinealloides, which is no longer believed to exist in the wild.

Frying pan shrub (Tiganophyton karasense)

<p>Wessel Swanepoel</p>

Wessel Swanepoel

The discovery of this odd-looking shrub was a huge milestone for scientists. Not only had they found a new species, but an entire new family of plants. Found in semi-desert regions of southern Namibia, the unique shrub is endemic to the salt pans of this specific area, hence the name tiganophyton. ‘Tigani’ means frying pan in Greek, while ‘phyton’ means plant.

Two new succulents (Aloe vatovavensis and Aloe rakotonasoloi)

<p>RBG Kew</p>


The aloe genus, of which the most famous species is the widely used aloe vera, contains more than 500 individual species. Two new ones were discovered by Kew Gardens scientists in 2020, the aloe vatovavensis and aloe rakotonasoloi (pictured). Unlike other aloes, which usually grow in wide-open areas with lots of sunlight, these two were found in a rainforest in eastern Madagascar.

Heathrow airport fungus (Cortinarius heatherae)

<p>Andy Overall</p>

Andy Overall

Far more than being a place to watch planes come and go, it turns out Heathrow airport, 14 miles (23km) west of central London, is a haven for fungi. This species, cortinarius heatherae, was found in 2020 along the airport’s boundary by field mycologist Andy Overall – the ‘Heather’ in the name is a tribute to his wife. The mushroom is a member of the cortinarius genus, which is important for providing nitrogen to trees and plays a role in the carbon cycle of forests.

Stunning morning glory (Ipomoea noemana)

<p>Enoc Jara</p>

Enoc Jara

Even though this bright pink flower has been known to local communities for decades, it was only in 2020 that it was recognised by scientists. Endemic to the Maranon River region of Peru, where it’s known by Indigenous people as 'yura', Ipomoea noemana was named by Peruvian philanthropist Noema Cano along with a team of researchers from Peru and Britain. It’s from the same genus as sweet potatoes and scientists believe it may have potential as a food crop.

Brazilian bromeliad (Acanthostachys calcicola)

<p>Gabriel Mendes Marcusso</p>

Gabriel Mendes Marcusso

From odd-looking shrubs to vibrant flowers, there’s no shortage of diversity in the plant world. Named acanthostachys calcicola, this new species of bromeliad was discovered in Brazil by two Brazilian botanists and a Kew Gardens researcher. Sadly, the stunning flower, which is from the same family as the pineapple, is under threat from limestone extraction in the area.

Medically important new plant (Marsdenia chirindensis)

<p>Bart Wursten</p>

Bart Wursten

With its dainty yellow-and-red striped flowers, you could be forgiven for thinking that this marsdenia chirindensis is just a pretty face. Yet the species, found in the Chirinda forest of eastern Zimbabwe, could be medically important. It comes from a family of plants known to treat a wide range of issues, including paralysis, burns and skin infections. This rare species, whose exact medical uses are not yet known, is thought to have great potential.

World’s ugliest orchid (Gastrodia agnicellus)

<p>Rick Burian</p>

Rick Burian

Yet not all flowers are quite so pretty. Scientists were bemused to discover this brand new orchid species, gastrodia agnicellus, in Madagascar, which looks like it fell off the ugly tree and hit every branch on the way down. With its small, brown, unattractive flowers, the plant is quite unusual: it’s entirely dependent on fungi for food as it has no leaves to carry out photosynthesis.

Hibiscus found on the internet (Hibiscus hareyae)

<p>Ian Darbyshire</p>

Ian Darbyshire

Australian botanist Lex Thomson had been studying historic images of hibiscus species online when he came across this flame-red plant. He realised that the flower, which grows in coastal scrubland in southern Tanzania, had previously been mislabelled as the similar-looking hibiscus schizopetalus. However, it had features which had not been documented before. The jagged-petalled plant was named hibiscus hareyae after Dr Hareya Fassil, a specialist in studying plant medicines in Africa.

Banana seed fungus (Fusarium chuoi)

<p>Marcelo Sandoval-Denis</p>

Marcelo Sandoval-Denis

Researchers were stunned when they found a fungus growing inside a banana seed at Kew Gardens’ Millennium Seed Bank (MSB), the world’s largest collection of seeds from wild plants. For context, this is the first time it's ever happened at the MSB. The microscopic fusarium chuoi was found inside a banana seed that hailed from Vietnam – chuoi means banana in Vietnamese – and is a type of fungus which can grow in plants without harming them.

Ghost orchid (Didymoplexis stella-silvae)

<p>Johan Hermans</p>

Johan Hermans

From plants which are virtually invisible to those which grow in almost complete darkness, this new species, dubbed the ‘ghost orchid’, dwells deep in the forests of Madagascar. That’s not the only mysterious thing about it. The elusive plant, which has no leaves, produces its dainty white flowers for just 24 short hours after rainfall. It was named didymoplexis stella-silvae, meaning ‘star of the forest’, for its star-shaped flowers.

Beautiful Barleria flower (B. thunbergiiflora)

<p>David Goyder</p>

David Goyder

With its stunning bluish-purple flowers, this newly discovered plant is a member of the barleria genus, which grows in high-elevation grasslands in the Kalahari Desert of southern Africa. Named by researchers from Namibia, Britain and the US, it was given the name thunbergiiflora after another genus of the same name which has similar-looking flowers.

Exploding firework flower (Ardisia pyrotechnica)

<p>Credit Shuichiro Tagane</p>

Credit Shuichiro Tagane

This flamboyant flower is certainly no shrinking violet, with its display of white petals likened to an exploding firework. Found in the forests of Borneo by Malaysian and Japanese researchers working with scientists from Kew Gardens, it’s only known to exist in a small number of locations and has already been listed as endangered. Sadly, the forests in which it grows are being razed to the ground to produce palm oil, which is found in a surprising number of everyday products.

Fungus with teeth (Hydnellum nemorosum)

<p>Martyn Ainsworth</p>

Martyn Ainsworth

The Hydnellum nemorosum might have sharp teeth, but don’t worry, it doesn’t bite. In fact the tooth-like structures found on this rare fungus, which was discovered in Windsor in the UK, are similar to most fungi gills and are used to produce spores. The species is incredibly rare – the Global Fungal Red List (part of the IUCN Red List which assesses species under threat of extinction) estimates that globally, there are less than 200 mature individuals left in the wild.

Voodoo lily (Pseudohydrosme ebo)

<p>Xander van der Burgt</p>

Xander van der Burgt

Cameroon’s startlingly biodiverse Edo Forest, which contains more than 75 threatened plant species, is home to this large and intriguing plant. Flowers of the voodoo lily, known as pseudohydrosme ebo, can reach up to 12 inches (30cm) in height and are produced from an underground tuber after leaves die. Until the discovery of this species, the pseudohydrosme genus was considered endemic to neighbouring Gabon.

Bornean blue-berried bush (Chassalia northiana)

<p>YW Low</p>

YW Low

The amazing thing about this plant? It was painted by Victorian artist Marianne North back in 1876, when it was thought to have been the first member of the chassalia genus ever to be illustrated. Despite this, it wasn’t until some 145 years later that the species was identified. The blue-berried plant, depicted in a painting which is displayed at Kew Gardens, was discovered by scientists from Kew and the Queen Mary University of London and named chassalia northiana in the artist’s honour.

Guiana Highlands orchid (Epidendrum katarun-yariku)

<p>Mateusz Wrazidlo/CC BY-SA 4.0/Wikimedia Commons</p>

Mateusz Wrazidlo/CC BY-SA 4.0/Wikimedia Commons

Discovered in the Guiana Highlands of Venezuela, this yellow-and-white orchid was named epidendrum katarun-yariku by members of the Pemon Arekuna Indigenous community of Paruima: ‘katarun’ means high and ‘yariku’ means flower. Researcher Mateusz Wrazidlo said: “I thought it would be a nice gesture to ask my Indigenous friends for their opinion and include them in the naming process, selecting a name in their Indigenous language instead of Latin.”

Now discover the beautiful animals on the verge of extinction