Europe’s Rarest Orchid, Lost For 173 Years, Rediscovered On 'Lost World' Volcano In The Azores

By Ajit Jha on December 10, 2013 1:15 PM EST

Hochstetter's Butterfly-orchid
The Hochstetter's Butterfly-orchid is an incredible rare orchid that was recently rediscovered on an island off of Brazil (Photo: Richard Bateman)

An orchid recently discovered on an island off of Brazil turned out to be Europe's rarest orchid, according to a new study published in the peer reviewed open access journal Peer J.

The researchers were studying butterfly orchids in the Azorean island of Sao Jorge, off the Atlantic coast of Brazil, when they recognized that one of the orchids there were investigating was actually the "Hochstetter's Butterfly-orchid" — reportedly Europe's rarest orchid species, currently threatened in its mountain-top retreat requiring urgent conservation. 

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The research team was led by independent botanist Prof. Richard Bateman, while Dr. Mónica Moura (University of the Azores) and plant morphologist Dr. Paula Rudall (of the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew) assisted the research efforts. The research team originally viewed the butterfly orchids as a simple, tractable system ideal for studying the origin of species, which led them to exploration of all nine Azorean islands.  

Strangely, research shows that the island butterfly-orchids first came to Azores all the way from the Mediterranean, and not from North America as one might expect. These ancestrally large flowers were rapidly undergoing miniaturization. Using DNA sequencing, morphology and the identities of mycorrhizal fungi associated with the roots of the orchids, it was discovered that the butterfly-orchid (Platanthera pollostantha) is distinct from the rarer Narrowlipped Butterfly-orchid (P. micrantha). Yet, this simple study was rather futile when Dr. Moura found an unusual population of butterfly orchids in remote dwarfed laurisilva forests along the highest volcanic ridge on the central island of São Jorge.

"I immediately recognized the flowers as being exceptionally large for an Azorean butterfly-orchid," said Moura. Images were sent to Richard Bateman immediately for confirmation of their originality. Subsequently, several lab based analytical techniques pointed to the discovery of new species. The species was named Platanthera azorica in the PeerJ paper. It was also found that the species originated relatively recently.

In a botany journal published in 1844, this new orchid was illustrated but never correctly identified as a new species, Bateman realized later. Despite its publication, this species continued to be confused with other Azorean species. German botanist Karl Hochstetter collected this specimen in 1838, during his tour of the six of the nine Azorean islands. The sample was later deposited in the herbarium at Tübingen. Hochstetter never returned to São Jorge where this species was most recently rediscovered.   

The research team is now worried about conservation protection for this exceptionally rare orchid. "This remarkable species languished unrecognized for 173 years," Bateman said. "It's rediscovery and recognition beautifully illustrate the value of integrating field-based and laboratory-based approaches to generate a modern monograph. This methodology both demonstrates that the species is genuine and allows us to make informed recommendations for its future conservation."

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