New Species of Parasitic Plant That Lives Off Fungi Found in Japan

The flower of the newfound Japanese parasitic plant Sciaphila yakushimensis (left) is quite different from that of the previously described species Sciaphila japonica (right). Yamashita Hiroaki

Most plants team up with fungi, forming a mycorrhiza, a symbiotic relationship in which roots provide sugars to the fungi, which in turn provide the plants with minerals and water. But a small number of plants cheat this system, taking minerals and sugars from mycorrhizal networks other than their own—and not giving anything back in return.

These parasites are little known and hard to spot, as they only make their way above ground when flowering. Japanese researcher Kenji Suetsugu, from Kobe University, fortuitously came across one of these plants on a field trip to Yakushima Island, in the far south of the country. The plant looked like nothing he had ever seen before, and he soon identified it as a new species. He and two colleagues have described this species in a study to be published February 20 in the Journal of Japanese Botany.

Like other parasitic plants, Sciaphila yakushimensis can only be found when it flowers above ground. Yamashita Hiroaki

The team named the new plant Sciaphila yakushimensis, after the island where it was found. Yakushima is known for its lush forests and is a World Heritage Site, revered in Japan for its natural splendor. The parasites, which depend on fungi nourished by other plants, are actually an indicator of ecosystem health.

These types of parasitic plants "are extremely rare and could not survive without a flourishing forest sustained by species-rich underground biotic fungal networks…which cannot be seen by our human eyes," Suetsugu says.