An Underground Orchid

Are you ready to have your mind blown away? What you are looking at here is not some strange kind of mushroom, though fungus is involved. What you are seeing is actually the inflorescence of a parasitic orchid from Australia that lives and blooms underground!

Meet Rhizanthella gardneri. This strange little orchid is endemic to Western Australia and it lives, blooms, and sets seed entirely underground. It is extremely rare, with only 6 known populations. Fewer than 50 mature plants are known to exist. This is another one of those tricky orchids that does not photosynthesize but, instead, parasitizes a fungus that is mycorrhizal with the broom honey myrtle (Melaleuca uncinata). To date, the orchid has only been found under that specific species of shrub. Because of its incredibly unique requirements, its limited range, and habitat destruction, R. gardneri is critically endangered.

The flowers open up a few centimeters under the soil. They are quite fragrant and it is believed that ants, termites, and beetles are the main pollinators. The resulting seeds take up to 6 months to mature and are quite fleshy. It is hypothesized that some sort of small marsupial eats them and consequently distributes them in its droppings. Either way, the chances of successful sexual reproduction for this species are quite low. Because of this, R. gardneri also reproduces asexually by budding off daughter plants.

Despite not photosynthesizing, this orchid is quite unique in that it still retains chloroplasts in its cells. They are a very stripped down form of chloroplast though, containing about half of the genes a normal chloroplast would. It is the smallest known chloroplast genome on the planet. This offers researchers a unique opportunity to look deeper into how these intracellular relationships function. The remaining chloroplast genes code for 4 essential plant proteins, meaning chloroplasts offer functions beyond just photosynthesis.

I am so amazed by this species. I'm having a hard time keeping my jaw off the ground. What an amazing world we live in. If you would like to see more pictures of R. gardneri, please make sure to check out the following website:
http://www.arkive.org/underground-orchid/rhizanthella-gardneri/

Photo Credit: Jean and Fred Hort

Further Reading:
http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/02/110208101337.htm

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2011-02/uowa-wai020711.php

http://www.environment.gov.au/cgi-bin/sprat/public/publicspecies.pl?taxon_id=20109