What plant has no leaves, no chlorophyll, is white, 100% parasitic, can reproduce vegetatively or sexually, is one of the rarest plants in the world and lives its entire life including blooming underground?
If you answered Rhizanthella gardneri, otherwise known as the Western Australian Underground Orchid, you’d be right.
The Western Australian Underground Orchid was first discovered in 1928 by a man in Western Australia. While tending to his garden, he noticed a crack in the soil. As he leaned down to take a closer look at the crack, he detected a sweet smell emanating from the crack, so he began to carefully remove the soil in his attempt to locate the source of the odor. A short distance below the surface, he uncovered a small white flower less than an inch in diameter, with a reddish center. Further investigations have revealed a truly unique member of the orchid family that spends its entire life underground.
This under wonder orchid is nothing more than a leafless tube that lives off the roots of the broom honey myrtle (Melaleuca unciata), also known as the broom bush, and a fungus (Thanatephorus gardneri). Although it contains chloroplasts, the orchid is unable to utilize the sun’s energy to photosynthesize its own nutrients. The orchid obtains its nutrients and carbon dioxide through the mycorrhiza of the fungus that helps convert the nutrients pulled from the broom bush.
In May and June, the orchid blossoms underground. Each flower head is made up of cluster of small dark maroon flowers surrounded by the larger white petals seen in the photo. Experts are not sure how the flowers are pollinated underground. Some theorize that small animals smell the sweet fragrance and either dig down to the flower or perhaps the animals are burrowers that pass by underground. Once the flower has been pollinated, it takes six months to mature and produce seeds. Since these orchids are so rare (about 50 – 70 individuals known in the wild) and so few of them have been studied in the wild, scientists are unsure how the seeds are dispersed underground, but again a prevailing theory relies on small marsupials that dig and eat the seeds which then pass through the digestive tract and deposited elsewhere.
Besides being able to reproduce sexually via the flowers and seeds, this orchard can also give rise to three daughter plants at a time by a budding process.
A recent study on the Western Australian Underground Orchid revealed that its chloroplasts contain only 30% of the number of genes found in most normal plants. Their chloroplast genome is considered to be the smallest of all known plants with only 37 genes that code for only 4 important proteins. The group of scientists from the ARC Centre for Excellence in Plant Energy Biology believes that the total parasitic lifestyle resulted in the loss of the genes that they no longer needed, leaving only those necessary for its underground existence.
While reading this article about this tiny orchid, I couldn’t help but wonder how evolutionists explain the evolutionary path it took from a normal photosynthesizing sunlight loving orchid to its current subterranean secretive life? What factors led the orchid to move underground? Did the orchid originally grow on the broom bush above ground and then somehow got buried and remained underground? There are many as yet unanswered questions surrounding this intriguing little lower.
I was also wondering if this orchid could have been created to live underground to begin with and that it never contained the supposedly missing genes since they wouldn’t have been necessary anyway?
Whether this orchid once lived above ground or has always lived below ground, it is still a unique testimony to the variety of forms and adaptations we find in God’s creation.