Rare new orchid species might only exist in Panamá, experts say

One day about eight years ago, Katia Silvera, a postdoctoral scholar at the University of California, Riverside, was on a field trip with her father in a mountainous area in central Panama when they stumbled upon an orchid they had never seen before.

Unable to identify it, they contacted German Carnevali, a world authority on orchids.  The orchid turned out to be an unnamed species. So Carnevali recently named it after the Silveras: Lophiaris silverarum.

Lophiaris is the genus name, comprising about 40 species in the world.  Carnevali, the director of the Natural Resources Department at the Scientific Center of Yucatan, Mexico, announced the new orchid species in a research paper published in the March issue of the journal Phytotaxa.

Naming a species is invariably a long process. It can take many years to officially name a plant species, the time depending on how well the plant group is studied and whether there is funding to do research on that particular group.

“Orchids are a difficult and confusing taxonomic group,” said Ms. Silvera, who joined the lab of Norman Ellstrand, a professor of genetics at Riverside, in 2011.  “People who specialize in the orchid family usually spend years naming different species based on DNA and morphology. Sometimes plants can look alike morphologically, but DNA informs us that they are very different species, which makes naming the species difficult.”

Ms. Silvera explained that because the orchid family is so large, there are many species that have not been found before.  As a result, new orchid species are being named every year and the number is rising.

“The diversity of orchids is best seen in the tropics, where, unfortunately, habitat is being destroyed very fast,” she said. “As a result, we are rapidly losing the diversity of orchid species. Although there are many orchid species unnamed in nature, it is actually quite difficult to determine for sure that an orchid is unnamed.  They are difficult to find and difficult to tell apart.  Orchid species are the raw materials for hybrids, and there is a lot to discover about how these species evolved and became such a successful group. Orchid research will only thrive if efforts to conserve tropical rainforest are put in place.”

The orchid family contains the largest number of plant species in the world.  They are the most collected group of plants by hobbyists. Close to 30,000 known species exist worldwide; many remain undiscovered.  Panamá alone has about 1,100 known orchid species. The United States has about 200 known orchid species.

Orchids are unique in that the flower’s female and male reproductive parts are fused together. An interesting aspect is that orchids can easily hybridize or cross.  As a result, some 300,000 orchid hybrids are man-made and commercially available to the public. Not found in nature, they only occur in laboratories and greenhouses for commercial purpose.

Currently, Lophiaris silverarum is known to grow only in central Panamá. It is not known if it grows in other areas of Central America. The plant blooms only in November, the flowers lasting about a month.  It is not sold in the U.S. because it is very rare, and it reproduces very slowly.

“We are in the process of propagating the species in vitro in Panamá for commercial purposes,” Ms. Silvera said. “My father, Gaspar Silvera, is the owner of a small orchid company in Panamá that specializes in propagating native orchid species but because L. silverarum grows slowly, taking about four years to reproduce in vitro, from seed to the first bloom, it will take many years before it is available to the public in Panamá first, and then made commercially available outside of Panamá.”

Ms. Silvera grew up in Panamá, and was always surrounded by plants. As a child she developed a fascination for plants and began learning as much as she could about them. Because her parents own a commercial orchid business, she learned about orchids and their diversity very early on.

She studied plant biology at the University of Panama. After graduating, she worked with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in different aspects of plant biology, even as a tour guide. For her graduate studies she came to the United States.  She received a master´s degree at the University of Florida and a doctorate at the University of Nevada Reno.

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