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World's ugliest orchid looks like a soul-sucking, eyeless worm

Behold: the ugly orchid, Gastrodia agnicellus.
Behold: the ugly orchid, Gastrodia agnicellus. (Image credit: Rick Burian)

Orchids are usually prized for their grace and loveliness, but a newly described species from Madagascar probably won't be winning any beauty contests. Its small flowers are a mottled brown, and it resembles a moldy paper bag (or maybe an eyeless, wormlike head with a mouth gaping in a silent scream or to consume your soul).

It's no wonder that the newfound species has been called "the ugliest orchid in the world" by the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew (RBG Kew) in the United Kingdom, which recently placed the homely newcomer at the top of a list highlighting species discovered in 2020, representatives said in a statement.

The leafless orchid, named Gastrodia agnicellus, grows underground in decaying leaf litter for most of its life cycle, and is nourished by fungus. In addition to the "small, brown and rather ugly" orchid, researchers and collaborators with RBG Kew described more than 150 plants and fungi this year, according to the statement.

Related: 5 surprising facts about orchids 

In 2019, British botanist Johan Hermans, an RBG Kew honorary research associate, found a number of G. agnicellus orchids hiding under leaf litter in a humid Madagascar forest. Their lumpy, oblong shapes hinted that the flower belonged to a group known as potato orchids, and the blooms, which measure about 0.4 inches (1.1 centimeters) in length, emit a "noticeable musk rose-like scent" that intensifies when air temperatures are warmer, Hermans wrote in a study published Nov. 5 in the journal Curtis's Botanical Magazine.

Other newly described species on the list include a scaly, heat-resistant shrub that thrives in Namibian salt pans (Tiganophyton karasense); a Peruvian plant with purple tubers that could be a new food crop (Ipomoea noemana); and a vibrant, colorful bromeliad — a family of tropical, flowering plants that includes the pineapple — from Brazil (Acanthostachys calcicola) that grows on limestone cliffs and may be pollinated by hummingbirds, according to the statement.

A flower found on a limestone cliff in Brazil was named Acanthostachys calcicola, which means "growing on limestone."  (Image credit: Gabriel Mendes Marcusso)

"In a challenging and difficult year, it's so thrilling to see botanical and mycological science continue, with a bumper list of incredible newly named species being documented with our collaborators across the world," said Martin Cheek, an RBG Kew botanist and senior scientist within the Identification and Naming department. 

"However, the bleak reality facing us cannot be underplayed: With two in five plants threatened with extinction, it is a race against time to find, identify, name and conserve plants before they disappear," Cheek said. 

Originally published on Live Science.

Mindy Weisberger
Mindy Weisberger is a senior writer for Live Science covering general science topics, especially those relating to brains, bodies, and behaviors in humans and other animals — living and extinct. Mindy studied filmmaking at Columbia University; her videos about dinosaurs, biodiversity, human origins, evolution, and astrophysics appear in the American Museum of Natural History, on YouTube, and in museums and science centers worldwide. Follow Mindy on Twitter.