A tropical, evergreen tree from Cameroon, the first plant species to be named as new to science in 2022, has officially been labelled Uvariopsis dicaprio today in honour of the actor Leonardo DiCaprio. It adds to the list of the strange and spectacular plants that scientists have named in the past 12 months.
Martin Cheek at the UK’s Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and his colleagues – including researchers at the National Herbarium of Cameroon and the University of Yaoundé I, Cameroon – analysed photos and specimens of the tree, which is found in Cameroon’s tropical Ebo forest.
They determined it was previously unknown to science, and also appears to be unknown among local communities. The team named the species after actor and environmental activist DiCaprio to commemorate his campaigning efforts to protect Ebo forest from logging.
Standing at around 4 metres tall, U. dicaprio can be identified by the distinctive and vibrant glossy yellow-green flowers that grow on its trunk. It is closely related to the ylang-ylang tree (Cananga odorata) which is native to India, South-East Asia, the Philippines, Indonesia and Australia.
“This is a plant which, for a botanist, just jumps out at you,” says Cheek. “It’s so spectacular.”
Currently, fewer than 50 individual trees have been spotted, and they are all confined to a single, unprotected area of Ebo forest. As a result, U. dicaprio is considered critically endangered.
Over the past year, there have also been many other newly named plant species.
In March 2021, 14 new species of blue-berried shrubs were named. These are all in the genus Chassalia, which belongs to the coffee family, and they include the species C. northiana, named after renowned Victorian artist Marianne North, who depicted the shrub in an 1876 oil painting.
“The amazing thing is that the first herbarium specimen of it wasn’t made until 1973,” says Cheek. “About 100 years after her painting.”
In August 2021, Mark Chase, also at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and his colleagues named seven new Australian species of wild tobacco (Nicotiana). These can be found throughout the Australian outback.
One of the more peculiar species is N. insecticida, which is covered in sticky hairs that trap and kill small insects – the first recorded wild tobacco plant to do so.
These newly named species highlight the often-underestimated biodiversity that exists in the arid regions of Australia, says Chase. “It’s a good example of how dynamic vegetation and animals can be when faced with hostile environments,” he says.
Additionally, during 2021, Johan Hermans, also at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and his colleagues named 16 species of orchids (Orchidaceae) from Madagascar.
One of the species, Didymoplexis stella-silvae, grows in complete darkness and its vivid white flowers only open immediately after rain and close back up after about 24 hours.
“Madagascar is an extraordinary, floating ark [of biodiversity],” says Hermans. But unfortunately, many plant species there are threatened by human activity. In fact, three of the 16 new orchid species are now extinct in the wild.
Ultimately, all these newly named species highlight the importance of documenting plant life.
“The planet is a poorer place when we lose the species that have taken, in most cases, millions of years to evolve,” says Cheek. “With so many useful products, from medicines to food to fibres, that come from plants, we don’t know what options we’re losing when these become extinct.”
Losing plant species will also have a knock-on effect for other organisms. “By protecting an orchid, you might be protecting an insect that [feeds on it],” says Hermans.
“It’s only once we know that a species exists, that we can do anything about getting it protected,” says Cheek.
Journal reference: PeerJ, DOI: 10.7717/peerj.12614
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