American botanist Lou Jost, one of the world's leading orchid hunters, is responsible for discovering 60 new species of orchid in the last decade alone. But it's his latest discovery that might be the most unique and unusual.
"I found it among the roots of another plant that I had collected, another small orchid which I took back to grow in my greenhouse to get it to flower," he said of his latest discovery. "A few months later I saw that down among the roots was a tiny little plant that I realized was more interesting than the bigger orchid."
As reported by The Independent, the minuscule new orchid is just 2.1 mm wide, and instantly supersedes the species Platystele jungermannioides as the world's smallest. In fact, the petals are so thin that they are just one cell thick and transparent.
It was found in the Cerro Candelaria reserve in the Ecuadorian Andes, a remote region made famous as home to most of the world's smallest orchids. In fact, over 1,000 new species of the storied flowers have been discovered in Ecuador in the past century, a treasure trove made possible by the continued construction of new roads which give orchid hunters access to what was previously some of the most remote and unspoiled forest habitats in the world.
Hopefully the new discoveries — ironically made possible by roads — will lead to increased awareness about the need to conserve remote habitats rather than develop them.
Orchids glean much of their otherworldy mystique from their highly specialized pollination systems, which often makes the chances of pollination scarce. This has allowed orchids to develop a diverse array of structural variations in their flowers, making them prestigious finds for flower hunters and curious botanists.
Another of Lou Jost's most prized discoveries was a group of 28 closely related types of orchid which evolved in a mountainous area the size of London, a patch of land so small that the find was described as a botanical version of Darwin's finches. In fact, Darwin's own study of the cross-pollination of orchids, as explored in his 1862 book Fertilisation of Orchids, played a large role in the development of his theory of natural selection.