Planet earth is home to some incredible diversity that most of us never get a chance to see. Much of our planet’s bizarre flora and fauna live in isolated, quiet places where humans don’t tread, and without the conservation efforts of researchers, we might have never known they existed.
This is particularly true for a few plant species that live exclusively in small regions. This trait is called endemism—the ecological state of a species (animal or plant) existing exclusively in one geographic location. And of the world’s endemic plants, these are a few of the most interesting.
Endemic to Madagascar, the Bismarck palm (Bismarckia nobilis) is a plant with many uses. Though it’s found only in certain regions of the island, locals use its leaves, bark, and pith for all kinds of purposes, from roofing and carpentry to baskets and food preparation.
Unfortunately, like many of Madagascar’s unique wildlife, the Bismarck palm is in danger. Identified by the ICUN as “critically endangered,” the plant is suffering from the effects of rampant deforestation and industrialization in the area. While there are still plenty of plants in the wild, it’s one of those rare species that may not be around for long.
Attenborough’s Pitcher Plant
Named after David Attenborough, the British naturalist who discovered this plant in 2007, Attenborough's pitcher plant is one of the rarest plants in the world.
Much like the famous Venus flytrap, pitcher plants are carnivorous flora that capture and devour live insects. This particular species of pitcher plant was found by Attenborough near the summit of Mount Victoria in the Philippines. The plant appears to live exclusively near the mountain’s summit, though since its discovery, other pitcher plants have been found along the mountain’s connecting ridges.
Nevertheless, Attenborough’s pitcher plant (similar to a species pictured above) can hardly be found in the wild outside of Mount Victoria, and the World Conservation Union (IUCN) has officially declared this species “critically endangered.”
Western Underground Orchid
Here’s something you don’t see everyday—a flower that lives entirely underground. The Western Underground Orchid (or Rhizanthella gardneri) is a strange, unique, and incredibly rare plant, exclusively found in Western Australia. Another critically endangered species, there are fewer than 50 known plants existing in the wild today.
This orchid is truly unique in terms of plant life. It spends the majority of its lifecycle underground, with no exposure to sunlight at all. This would be a death sentence for most plants, but this particular orchid is able to live by syphoning nutrients from a nearby species of fungus that coexists near the orchid’s root system. With the fungus providing minerals and water, the orchid is able to flourish in subterranean conditions.
They’re fascinating plants, but don’t expect to find one yourself! There aren’t many of these around, and in an effort to conserve the species, scientists keep the location of all known plants a secret from the public.
The E. woodii species of cycad is endemic to southern Africa, and is otherwise known as Wood’s cycad. Cycads are an old order of tree that has existed on Earth for over 280 million years. It’s believed that during the Jurassic Period, cycads made up a full 20 percent of the world’s plants.
But the Jurassic Period is over. Today, Wood’s Cycad is one of the rarest plants in the world, with no known specimens living in the wild. Researchers have made clones of the tree that have been widely distributed in the wild, but in terms of the original species, there’s only one left—a single specimen housed at the Royal Botanical Gardens in London.
The jellyfish tree is another unusual plant that has nearly been eradicated from the world. Endemic to Mahé Island, Seychelles, the jellyfish tree is a small tree with delicate flowering tendrils that resemble the tentacles of a jellyfish. It’s an interesting specimen that reproduces in a strange way: letting its seeds get scattered by the wind.
This is a common strategy for many plants but not so much for plants that live exclusively on islands, as it’s easy for the seeds to get wasted in the ocean. And perhaps this is part of the jellyfish tree’s problem—at last count, there were only 86 known trees living in the wild.