In the heart of the southern states of Australia, there lives a curious and elusive plant, so small and hidden that very few people have the luck to ever see one in their lifetime. It’s Thismia rodwayi, commonly known as the fairy lantern.

Belonging to the family Burmanniaceae, which is found in the lush and humid eucalyptus forests of Tasmania, Victoria, and New South Wales, as well as in various places in New Zealand, it’s a plant that doesn’t use chlorophyll or perform photosynthesis. But is it still a plant?

Its tiny flower, measuring between 10 and 18 millimeters in height, is a sight to behold and is the only part of the plant that protrudes above the ground. It has an obovate floral tube adorned in shades of orange and red, crowned with six perianth lobes: three inner ones that curve inward and three outer ones that extend outward, giving the impression of a small lamp straight out of a Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale, creating a truly enchanting display.

A Fairy Lantern found in Tasmania in October 2013
A Fairy Lantern found in Tasmania in October 2013. Credit: Thouny / Wikimedia Commons

Emerging from the forest floor and hidden under a thick layer of leaf litter, the delicate shape of the lantern seems to float ethereally, earning it the apt nickname of fairy lantern.

Its biology is a display of adaptation and ingenuity. Since it lacks chlorophyll, it can’t obtain the energy it needs from the sun, so it has figured out a way to associate with a symbiotic fungus that provides it with the necessary nutrients to survive. The hyphae of the fungus are found in the plant’s roots, absorbing nutrients from the decaying organic matter around it and transferring them to the fairy lantern in the form of fat globules.

This intricate relationship, known as mycoheterotrophy, is not yet fully understood, and much of the plant’s life cycle, including its reproduction, remains a mystery to scientists. What is known is that the fairy lantern typically produces only one or two flowers per flowering cycle, often in small clusters of 2 to 5 individuals, and sometimes up to 12 in an area less than one square meter.

Fairy Lantern bud in Tasmania in October 2013
Fairy Lantern bud in Tasmania in October 2013. Credit: Thouny / Wikimedia Commons

The rarity of the fairy lantern is exacerbated by the difficulty in detecting it due to its discreet nature and tiny size, which often goes unnoticed. Although most of the potential habitats for the fairy lantern are protected and located in national parks, riverbank reserves, and other protected areas, the plant’s future is not entirely secure.

This enchanting plant, a true embodiment of the hidden wonders of the forest, captures the imagination and inspires us to protect the delicate balance of these fragile ecosystems. By understanding and preserving the fairy lantern’s habitat, we can ensure that this botanical wonder continues to illuminate the forests of Australia and New Zealand for generations to come.

The small number of known specimens has earned it a place on Tasmania’s Threatened Species Protection Act List 5 (Rare), although the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) does not currently consider it threatened. Either way, a lot of persistence, and a bit of luck, is required to spot a specimen.

In “Sampling Thismia” Vincent Merckx documents his search and study of the Fairy Lanterns. Credit: Vincent Merckx / Youtube

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on April 25, 2024. Puedes leer la versión en español en Linterna de Hadas, la diminuta y misteriosa flor que pocos tienen la suerte de ver


Thismia rodwayi (New Zealand Plant Conservation Network) | Thismia rodwayi fairy lanterns (Threatened Species Link) | Thismia (University of Tasmania) | Wikipedia

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