New plants for a dimmer future?

Image: Piccolo Namek/Wikimedia Commons.
Image: Piccolo Namek/Wikimedia Commons.

As anyone who merely glances at the titles of scientific articles will tell you, when ‘new species’ and ‘China’ are seen together it is usually a tale of ‘yet another’ extinct missing-link fossil from that amazing country (e.g. Pascal Godefroit et al.). Well, this time I’m pleased to report new plant taxa from China that are very much extant – if rather startled by all the attention they are receiving and the glare of the media spotlight (or any light come to that…). The species concerned are three new members of the genus Pilea (the largest genus in the Urticaceae – the stinging nettle family), newly discovered in the karst limestone topography of south-west China. Of the trio, Pilea shizongensis, P. guizhouensis and P. cavernicola (formally described – in English, as now permitted by new IUCN rules – by Alex Monro et al.), the latter is probably the most intriguing as it was found within caves (OK, there is a bit of a clue in its specific epithet…). But not only is it a troglodyte (‘cave-dweller’) – or, more technically, a sciophyte (‘a plant which grows in low light environments’) – it survives on light levels as low as 0.04% of full sunlight (!!). Yep, I know what you’re thinking: isn’t nature clever to have evolved a plant that will actually grow in homes lit by those depressingly-gloomy-but-they-are-the-future, long-life, low-energy light bulbs! And talking of coming out of the shadows, the importance of another nettleUrtica dioica, whose harvestable and weavable bast fibres have long been used to produce fabric – has recently been underlined by Christian Bergfjord et al.’s discovery that this material was chosen in preference to locally available fabric made from flax in the Bronze Age, approximately 2800 years ago. Irritatingly, nowhere in that article do they mention nettle by its scientific name – what is it with those so-called ‘sciences’ that don’t use scientific names?!? Anyway, this discovery of fabric – probably derived from Austrian nettles – in a burial site in Denmark challenges previous assumptions that textile production in that period in northern Europe was solely based on local and non-specialised production, and emphasises the role of nettle as a textile plant of ancient commercial importance.

[For more on the ‘shady side’ of plant life, why not look at Charlotte Gommers et al.’s recent review – Ed.]