A New-to-Science Palm Discovered in Borneo called Pinanga Subterranean Grows Fruit and Flowers Underground
You are probably familiar with pollination – the transfer of pollen by animals, insects or wind. Pollination is an essential part of the growth and existence of a flower as it creates offspring for the next generation. Many flowers also depend on the sun for continuous growth. Through photosynthesis, they absorb energy from the sun, which fuels the processes necessary for survival.
Now here’s where things get interesting. Scientists have discovered a plant that throws everything we know about pollination and photosynthesis out the window. A new-to-science palm species found in Borneo can flower and fruit underground. Some plants are known to do both, such as the peanut, which flowers above ground and then develops its fruit below ground.
However, the phenomenon experienced by the Pinanga subterranean palm is extremely rare as only a very small number of plant species have evolved to flower or fruit underground, and so far, Pinanga subterranean is the only known member of the palm family to experience this. It has so far only been recorded in one other plant group – an orchid Rhizanthella. The palm has been named Pinanga subterranean, with the species name derived from the Latin word for “underground”. It joins more than 2500 species of palm known to science, whereby up to half are threatened with extinction.
The Pinanga subterranean palm was first found in 1997 by Malaysian botanist Dr. Paul Chai who encountered it during a visit to Lanjak Entimau Wildlife Sanctuary in Sarawak. While brushing aside the thick leaf litter surrounding a young palm to take a better picture of it, he noticed the fruit that had been revealed. It was the only plant in the area that had fruits.
Pinanga subterranean is a small palm growing to a height of only about 1 meter. It has a single trunk that is covered in spines. The leaves are long and narrow, and they grow in a fan-like arrangement. The flowers are small and greenish-white and produced in clusters below ground. The fruit is bright red and it is about 2 centimeters in diameter.
The palm was also found in Kalimantan in Indonesia, where it was discovered in 2017 by Agusti Randi. The scientist discovered it with the help of wild boars digging in the soil around a palm population. The boars were searching to find the underground fruit. Their feces also had the palm’s seeds contained in them. The Pinanga Subterranean seeds don’t have any distinct scent to humans but are sought out after these boars, much like pigs are used for truffling hunting.
Pinanga subterranean has raised many questions about the evolution of the plant. How did the plant evolve to flower and fruit below ground? What pollinates the flowers? How are the seeds dispersed? These are just some of the questions that scientists are still trying to answer.
The discovery of Pinanga subterranean has made scientists believe this plant is evidence of more exciting discoveries lurking underground. There is also much more to learn about this new-to-science palm, especially understanding what pollinates the palm. Plants in the Pinanga genus are typically pollinated by insects such as bees and beetles, which cannot move around easily below ground. Selfing, which occurs in underground and permanently closed flowers, may be an alternative mode of pollination, but it is still not fully understood.
Although new to science, the Pinanga subterranean palm was already known to locals who eat the fruits as a snack while working in the forest. This scientific discovery stresses the need to collaborate more closely with indigenous communities to learn about the landscape and the forests.