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January 04, 2010

Treasure trove of nearly 300 new plants discovered by Kew experts

by Lewis Smith

A massive tree that is a relative of the pea yet rises more than 135ft above the ground is among a treasure trove of plants and fungi discovered by botanists.
It is one of a "bumper crop" of almost 300 new species discovered in the past 12 months by scientists at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew.

They include colourful blooms such as orchids and passion flowers, giant trees, a yam reputed to cure cancer and a range of plants that have the potential to be cultivated as valuable crops.

The tally by Kew botanists in the past year accounts for more than one in seven of all new plants and fungi recorded around the world.

"We are turning out stuff all the time," said Dr Aaron Davis, a coffee plant specialist. "And there are all sorts of groovy things this year. Looking back on this year it's not just the number we've found that is special but the type of species we've found. It has surprised us. We have big canopy plants, numerous coffees, numerous palms and yams, and many orchids and indigos. The public perception is, 'Surely you know all the palms and coffee and big canopy plants by now?' But obviously we don't."

Most finds have been made in tropical areas of the world where many more types of plant and fungus grow than in cooler regions.

Seven new varieties of coffee plant, most of them in Madagascar, were among the discoveries and could offer growers alternatives to the crops they grow today.

Dr Davis said that the pleasure in discovering a new species remains undimmed even to someone who has uncovered scores: "I must have described over 200 species over the years and it's always exciting, particularly if it's something very, very different and it doesn't look like anything else you have ever seen. It's really exciting." He added: "Most of our new finds are coming from the tropics because the areas have a higher density of plants than anywhere else. And some of these areas are almost totally unexplored.

You would think that we know all the species of something like coffee which is a massively important crop but we've discovered nearly 30 in the last 10 years. And when you consider there are only 100 species in total that's pretty amazing.

"Coffee is the world's second most traded commodity, after oil, with at least 25 million farming families dependent on its production for their livelihoods, yet we still have much to learn about its wild relatives. Conserving the genetic diversity within this genus has implications for the sustainability of our daily cup, particularly as coffee plantations are highly susceptible to climate change."

The biggest new species to be discovered in 2009 by Kew botanists was the tree Berlinia korupensis, which is related to a pea. It boasts pods that grow a foot long and explode when ripe to hurl the seeds across the forest floor far from the parent tree. It was found in the Korup National Park in Cameroon, but only 17 specimens were pinpointed, making it critically endangered.

Two other big trees, Talbotiella velutina and Lecomtedoxa plumosa, were also discovered in the Cameroon rainforests. Both grow to 100ft tall.

In South Africa botanists discovered the "cancer cure" yam, Dioscorea strydomiana, which is held by locals to have healing properties. Despite being known locally it had escaped identification by scientists.

Only 200 of the plants have been pinpointed, and Dr Paul Wilkin, Kew's yam expert, said: "This is the most unique and unusual yam I have come across, and probably the most threatened."

An unexpectedly small plant was a knee-high dwarf eucalyptus in Australia named Eucalyptus sweedmaniana which, along with a second, Eucalyptus brandiana, was discovered by Professor Stephen Hopper, Kew's director. He said: "It is not widely known that 2,000 new plant species are discovered worldwide each year.


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