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Japanese researchers have discovered a new species of orchid whose pink and white flowers are so delicate and fragile that they look like glass.

The flower is related to a genus of orchids - Spiranthes, common in Japan, which it closely resembles.

However, his discovery is an important reminder that unknown species often live right under our noses, the scientists wrote in the Journal of Plant Research, cited by "Darik".

Orchids of this species are called "lady's hair" because of their resemblance to wavy strands of hair.

They have a central stem around which grows an ascending spiral of small bell-shaped flowers that can be white, pink, purple or yellow.

There are about 50 species of Spiranthes found in Eurasia, Australia and the Americas, usually in temperate or tropical regions, and these flowers have been known in Japan for hundreds of years, according to the study.

Populations of the new species were found in Tokyo Prefecture near Hachijo Island, inspiring its name - Spiranthes hachijoensis.

Prior to this discovery, three new species of Spiranthes orchids had been identified in Japan: S. australis, S. sinensis and S. hongkongensis, of which only S. australis was previously thought to grow in the country.

They found a new species of orchid

During a survey in mainland Japan more than a decade ago, the current study's lead author Kenji Suetsugu, a professor in Kobe University's Department of Biodiversity, Ecology and Species, discovered something unusual: flowers believed to be S. australis, have smooth stems (S. australis usually have hairy stems.)

The hairless populations bloom about a month earlier than is typical of S. australis — another indication that these orchids may not be S. australis, Suetsugu says.

"This led us to investigate them further," he adds.

From 2012 to 2022, the scientist and his colleagues searched for glabrous orchids and analyzed the plants' physical characteristics, genetics and ways of reproduction.

Because Spiranthes species often overlap geographically and look alike, it is "important to have a comprehensive understanding of their distribution and ecology to distinguish the unique characteristics of the new species," he says.

The flowers of S.hachijoensis range "from purple-pink to white," with petals measuring 3 to 4 millimeters in length, the researchers report.

S.hachijoensis has smaller flowers with wider bases and straighter central petals than other Spiranthes species.

It also lacks a structure for self-pollination.

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Morphologically, it is close to S. hongkongensis and S. nivea, but minor physical differences and genetic analysis confirm that it is unique.

In addition to the Tokyo habitat, the study authors found S.hachijoensis elsewhere in the Kanto, Kyushu, Shikoku and Chubu regions.

Spiranthes is Japan's most familiar orchid species and has been prized for centuries, with the flower mentioned in the country's oldest poetry anthology, which dates back to 759.

The identification of new plant species in Japan is an unusual event, as the flora of the area has been widely documented and studied.

This discovery is likely to spark interest in the flower, which is much rarer than S.australis.

The fragile beauty of newfound 'lady hair' is a hallmark of orchids - but so is vulnerability.

There are about 28,000 known species of orchids worldwide.

However, habitat loss has threatened many of them, and the flowers' popularity will not save them if they are not protected.

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