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Not your ordinary houseplant: World’s tallest begonia found in Tibet

Male inflorescence of Begonia giganticaulis. Photo by Daike Tian.

  • While surveying in the warm and rainy forests of southern Tibet, researchers spotted a begonia twice as tall as a person.
  • The new species, which they named Begonia giganticaulis, is the tallest begonia in the world.
  • Because fewer than 1,000 individual plants are estimated to live in the fragmented forest habitat, the species has been classified as endangered.
  • China is home to some 300 begonia species, many of which are illegally collected and overharvested for ornamental or medicinal use, a trend driven by increased internet commerce.

When researchers found a begonia plant twice as tall as a person, they knew they had something extraordinary. Of the more than 2,000 known begonia species, most are the size of large herbs or small shrubs.

In late 2020, during surveys in Mêdog county in southern Tibet, Daike Tian and his colleagues from the Shanghai Chenshan Plant Science Research Center and the Chinese Academy of Sciences saw a massive begonia in bloom. After a quick check of the flowers, Tian says, he knew it was an undescribed species. The species, which they named Begonia giganticaulis, is described in the journal PhytoKeys.

One of the largest begonia specimens the group found was 3.6 meters (11.8 feet) tall and close to 12 centimeters (4.7 inches) in diameter. To measure the plant, Tian stood on top of a vehicle. The unwieldy specimen had to be carried back to the lab in Shanghai cut into four sections. The staff of the Shanghai Chenshan Botanical Garden’s herbarium are currently applying for Guinness World Records for this specimen.

The research team measures the height of a Begonia giganticaulis individual at its collection site. Photo by Qing-Gong Mao.
The large stem of Begonia giganticaulis. Photo by Daike Tian.

Surveys along streams and throughout the warm, wet forest revealed a scant population of the flowering giants. Because fewer than 1,000 individual plants are estimated to live in the fragmented forest habitat, the species has been classified as endangered according to the IUCN Red List. Scientists say additional populations may be found when more surveys are conducted in the China-India border region.

Asia is home to many wild begonia species, including an estimated 300 species in China. There, the colorful, flowering plants with their unique leaf shapes are illegally collected and overharvested for ornamental or medicinal use, a trend driven by increased internet commerce.

Tian and colleagues say more field surveys are needed to understand wild begonia populations, and recommend conservation measures such as seed banking, reintroducing endangered species to the wild, and strengthening laws against illegal harvests.

The research team poses with a specimen of Begonia giganticaulis at the first Chinese begonia show in Shanghai Chenshan Botanical Garden. Photo by Meiqin Zhu.

Citations:

Tian, D., Wang, W., Dong, L., Xiao, Y., Zheng, M., & Ge, B. (2021). A new species (Begonia giganticaulis) of Begoniaceae from southern Xizang (Tibet) of China. PhytoKeys187, 189-205. doi:10.3897/phytokeys.187.75854

Tian, D., Xiao, Y., Tong, Y., Fu, N., Liu, Q., & Li, C. (2018). Diversity and conservation of Chinese wild begonias. Plant Diversity40(3), 75-90. doi:10.1016/j.pld.2018.06.002

Banner image of male inflorescence of Begonia giganticaulis by Daike Tian.

Liz Kimbrough is a staff writer for Mongabay. Find her on Twitter @lizkimbrough_

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