Genuflecting plant discovered in Brazil

RUTGERS (US) — A newly discovered Brazilian plant bends down after its fruits are formed and plants its own seeds in the ground.

The phenomenon, called geocarpy, allows Spigelia genuflex to ensure its seeds end up as close to the mother plant as possible, facilitating its propagation the following season. Peanuts are another example of geocarpy—a rare adaptation to growing in harsh or ephemeral environments.

“It is very easy to think we have found and described most plant species of the world already, but this discovery shows that there are so much left out there without name and recognition,” says Lena Struwe, professor of plant biology and pathology at Rutgers.


Both taxonomy and biodiversity are in a current global crisis, but this discovery, reported in the journal PhytoKeys, shows “collaboration between amateurs and professional scientists, using both new molecular and traditional methods and making use of the facilities of the Internet can lead to new discoveries and new efficient ways of documenting the world’s biodiversity,” she says.

The plant’s discovery had an interesting start. Two years ago, a handyman working at the home of amateur botanist Alex Popovkin in rural northeastern Bahia, Brazil, spied the unusual, inch-high plant with white and pink flowers.

Struwe collaborated with Popovkin to study and publish the new species. “It was clear that the plant was a member of the strychnine family, Loganiaceae, and its genus Spigelia, but not of a species previously known,” she says.

Further collaboration with another expert in the strychnine family, Katherine Mathews from Western Carolina University, and visiting scientist Mari Carmen Molina from Spain, who extracted DNA from the plant in Struwe’s laboratory, led to the confirmation of the species as Spigelia, to which pinkroot, an old North American herbal remedy against intestinal parasites also belongs.

“The art of taxonomy is finding as well as being able to recognize something as new or different, which is hard when the world is home to millions of species and very few species experts,” she says.

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