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Gymnosiphon afro-orientalis

This flowering plant does not photosynthesise, but depends on fungi instead for survival.
Gymnosiphon afro-orientalis

Gymnosiphon afro-orientalis

Species information

Scientific name: 

Gymnosiphon afro-orientalis Cheek

Conservation status: 

Rated by the IUCN as Vulnerable (VU). This species is known from only seven sites, in four countries, where the habitat is threatened by deforestation.


Cloud forest (tropical or subtropical evergreen montane moist forest with a high incidence of low-level cloud cover).

Known hazards: 

None known.


Genus: Gymnosiphon

About this species

Gymnosiphon afro-orientalis was discovered by the Kew botanist Martin Cheek during a field trip to Malawi. This expedition involved some work at the Nchisi Forest Reserve, which is protected for timber production. It was during a trek down a shady gully in the forest, where the ground was bare, that a small white, flat-topped, 3-lobed flower on a delicate stalk was spotted. Following this discovery, hundreds more of the plants were found in the few square metres nearby.


Discover more

Geography and distribution

This species is found in Malawi, south Tanzania, Zambia and Congo-Kinshasa, and is known from only seven sites within these four countries.


Gymnosiphon afro-orientalis is a herb that grows up to 6 to 10 cm tall. This species is lacking in leaves, or any green tissue. The purple flowering stems arise, probably annually, from underground tubers (storage organs) in a cluster less than 1 cm across.

The flowers are white with a yellow throat and point skywards. The 3-lobed flowers are about 8 mm in diameter and are radially symmetrical. The pollinating insects remain unknown. The top halves of the petals, including the 3 lobes, drop off after flowering, leaving the naked tube that gives the genus its name.

The ripe fruit is papery brown, ellipsoid, about 2.5 mm in diameter, and carries the tube at the top. Numerous minute, dust-like seeds are shed from the ripe fruit.

This species differs from other African Gymnosiphon species in having tubers in a cluster, lacking inner tepal (petal or sepal) appendages in the flower, and in the receptive female parts being pendulous, not erect.

Gymnosiphon afro-orientalis is dependent on fungi for survival. Without knowing which fungi are involved in this relationship, we do not have the knowledge or means to cultivate this species successfully.

Threats and conservation

This species is threatened by the clearance of surviving fragments of cloud forest in the countries in which it occurs. The habitat protection work that Kew is engaged in does not currently include the areas in which this species is known.

References and credits

Cheek, M. (2009). Burmanniaceae, pp. 141-148 in Timberlake & Martens (eds), Flora Zambesiaca. Vol. 12 part 2. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Kew Science Editor: Martin Cheek
Copy editing: Emma Tredwell

While every effort has been taken to ensure that the information contained in these pages is reliable and complete, the notes on hazards, edibility and suchlike included here are recorded information and do not constitute recommendations. No responsibility will be taken for readers’ own actions.

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