Scientists at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew publish their list of new species discovered in 2019

Release date: 17 December 2019

  • Kew selects 10 highlights from 110 species discovered in 2019
  • Bamboo-dwelling medicinal fungi, a snowdrop discovered on Facebook and taste-altering berry among the showstoppers on Kew’s list
  • 2019 list celebrates the brilliant diversity of the world’s plants and fungi but also highlights some of the imminent threats they face. 

The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew has selected its top 10 species discovered in 2019, celebrating the brilliant diversity of the world’s plants and fungi. From a bamboo-dwelling medicinal fungi, to a snowdrop discovered on Facebook and a miracle berry that changes your taste buds, this year’s top picks represent the amazing breadth of new discoveries made by Kew and its collaborators across the globe every year.

Approximately 102 vascular plants and eight species of fungi were discovered in 2019 across the world from Africa, Asia, the Americas and beyond – but sadly, many are already under threat of extinction. There are increasing threats to their natural habitat from conversion to agricultural land, to hydro-electric dams, quarrying, cutting of trees for charcoal and timber, man-made fires, and climate change.

Some of these new discoveries could hold the key to the development of new medicines, provide a solution for agroforestry, or become the new plant lovers’ favourite. They are all a stark reminder of the importance of exploring and studying the world’s plant and fungal diversity before species are lost forever.

Dr Martin Cheek, Kew Botanist and Senior Scientist within the Kew Science Identification & Naming department says:

“Discovering and describing new species is a truly exciting and vital scientific endeavour so we can better protect new species before they become extinct. It also helps us to understand their potential uses, and how they might provide the solutions to help us tackle some of the critical challenges facing humanity today. “This year’s selection represents a range of new to science plants and fungi that are unique and characterful yet threatened by human interventions, and at risk of becoming extinct soon; something that makes us both concerned and passionate about their protection.”

This year’s weird and wonderful new discoveries include: 

1. A snowdrop discovered from a holiday photo uploaded to Facebook…

A new snowdrop, Galanthus bursanus, from North West Turkey was discovered on Facebook when a Turkish paediatrician, Dr Y Konca, uploaded her holiday photos to the social media platform. They were spotted by a Ukrainian snowdrop specialist, Dr Dimitri Zubov, who could see from the picture that they were something special. Zubov and Konca went back to find the location in the photo, collected a sample of the plant and contacted Kew’s snowdrop specialist Dr Aaron Davis. Unfortunately, the snowdrop, has already been assessed as ‘Critically Endangered’ due to threats from illegal collecting, marble quarrying, climate change and expansion of agricultural land.

2. Sweet, not sour: A new species of ‘miracle-berry’…

Synsepalum chimanimani, a new species of ‘miracle-berry’ has been discovered in the lowland rainforests of the Chimanimani Mountains on the Mozambique - Zimbabwe border in Africa. The miracle-berry is a small tree, just four metres in height, with glossy evergreen leaves produced in small bunches. The twigs produce a white rubbery latex when cut.

Fewer than 40 species of miracle berry are known, all from tropical African forests. The fruits are slightly sweet to taste, but contain a compound called miraculin that blocks taste buds, so that when sour foods are eaten, such as limes, they taste sweet. The new species has been assessed as ‘Endangered’ as it is only known to exist in three locations, all of which are under threat from deforestation for agriculture.

3. Doomed by a hydro-electric dam? New ‘orchid’ discovered in a waterfall…

The Inversodicraea koukoutamba was discovered on a waterfall on the Bafing River in Guinea, West Africa. It has not been found anywhere else. The new species, identified to be in the family known as the ‘orchids of the falls’ is a rubbery, seaweed shrub which grows to 20cm tall.

Kew scientists expect it to become globally extinct when construction on a planned hydro-electric project in the area begins next year. Hydropower projects usually target waterfalls and have caused several species of this family to go extinct already in other parts of Africa. Other species of this same plant family are known to hold medicinal properties and are edible, so their conservation is important.

4. A bamboo-dwelling medicinal fungus found in China…

This year, a medicinal fungus known in China for over 400 years, ‘Zhuhongjun’, was discovered to be a genus as well as a species previously unknown to science. It has now been formally named Rubroshiraia bambusae.

The new genus is native to Yunnan in South West China where it grows on a species of bamboo forming pink, ball-like fruiting bodies. The fungus is used as traditional medicine in the area to treat arthritis and infantile convulsion. However, scientific interest has increased due to the discovery of compounds in the fungus known as ‘hypocrellins’.

Hypocrellins have gained much attention owing to their light-induced anti-tumour, anti-fungal and anti-viral activities which may have useful applications in the wider medical world. Hypocrellin also has anti-microbial activities which inhibit various bacteria. Further research into the medicinal properties of this fungus are ongoing.

5. 10 new species of bears’ breeches found in tropical Africa….

Ten new bears’ breeches were found this year in tropical Africa by Kew Scientists. Particularly noteworthy are two ‘showy’ blue-flowered flower species of Baleria,  found in Angola: Barleria deserticola and Barleria namba.

B. deserticola
, from the Namib coastal desert famous for the ‘living fossil’ Welwitschia mirabilis, was first collected 160 years ago by the explorer Friedrich Welwitsch himself, but was only re-found in 2017 by US botanist Erin Tripp, finally allowing this species to be named this year by Kew. B. namba only came to light very recently, having been discovered by Kew’s botanist David Goyder on the previously unexplored Mount Namba.

Nearly half of Kew’s new discoveries this year were from Africa, with most published by Kew Scientist Iain Darbyshire. Iain is the leader of Kew’s Tropical Important Plant Areas (TIPAs) which identifies the most important sites for plant conservation on a national scale to ensure the findings are used in policy and land-use planning.

6. A bright pink, candy-striped violet from New Guinea…

A spectacular new species from the African violet family, Cyrtandra vittata, was discovered this year in northern New Guinea. The striking, bright pink candy-striped flower grows on a shrub in the rainforest and its white berries are thought likely to be dispersed by doves and pigeons.

The African violet was collected from the wild under permit by intrepid scientists at the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh; once propagated from cuttings it was discovered to be a new species when it flowered in cultivation. 

Cyrtandra vittata is one of about 800 species which range from herbs to small trees and occur from Thailand to the Hawaiian Archipelago. Most species occur in the Philippines, Borneo or New Guinea. 

7. Eleven new trees and shrubs found in the Andean forests…

11 new species of trees and shrubs have been discovered in the Andean forests in South America this year. All 11 new species are in the plant genus Freziera.

These new trees could have many uses. Some species of the genus are known to produce compounds which could be of medicinal or biochemical value. Other species have also been proposed as conservatory plants because of their attractive glossy, variously sculptured leaves.

Several of the new species are restricted to relatively small areas of montane and cloud forest in South America in Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru. Sadly, all 11 have been assessed as ‘threatened with extinction’, mainly due to their small distributions, rarity and increasing habitat destruction in the area.

8. Endangered by a volcano…

Costularia cadetii, a perennial herb, grows on the rims of the volcanoes in Réunion, an island in the Indian Ocean east of Madagascar. The first record of this species was collected in 1965 but further material was needed, and it was only officially named this year.

Kew scientist Isabel Larridon named the herb after its collector Thérésian Cadet, a former teacher and climbing enthusiast of the island. The species is already classified as ‘Endangered’ as it is restricted to this high elevation habitat

which puts it at risk from volcanic activity, fire and climate change.

9. A botanists’ love letter: Kew scientist named orange flower after his wife

Found growing on a table-stone mountain in Kounounkan, in Guinea, is the Gladiolus mariae.

Kew scientist Xander van der Burgt found the vivid orange flower to be restricted to two mountains in the area – the mountains are among the last to remain unimpacted by humans. It likes to grow in fire-free habitats and occurs in open vegetation with little grass.

Xander decided to name the beautiful and unique flower after his wife Maria.

10. A rare find: the Zonozono tree

With just seven trees known on Earth, Zonozono, a 20m tall tree in the ylang-ylang family, is perhaps the rarest species described this year.

It was named by its discoverers George Gosline and Andy Marshall in honour of the Tanzanian botanist Iddi Rajabu and has been identified in a genus previously only known from West Africa and not suspected to be occurrent in the Usambara Mountains of Tanzania in East Africa.

It is assessed as Endangered due to the low number of individuals, and threats from pole-cutting and an invasive tree species.