Found: A Tropical Plant Last Spotted Over 150 Years Ago

Thismia neptunis is back, and its alien looks were worth the wait.

In 1866, the Italian naturalist Odoardo Beccari discovered a curious-looking plant while venturing through the tropics of Malaysia. It looked like a bulbous lantern, with three pointy antenna-like rods and a ribbed, white stem. Intrigued, Beccari later drew the Thismia neptunis in his notebook, preserving its likeness for years. Little did he know his 1878 depiction would be the only record of the plant—until now.

After over 150 years, researchers from the Crop Research Institute and Palacký University in the Czech Republic rediscovered Thismia neptunis in Matang Massif, Borneo. The plant was just as Beccari described, with a few additional details. The plant’s bulb-like flower is 9 centimeters across (3.5 inches) with reddish stripes and a tiny circular opening at the top.

Thismia neptunis is part of the mycoheterotrophic plant species, which means it lacks chlorophyll and can’t photosynthesize. Rather, it extracts nutrients and fluids from underground fungi to survive. Other than those few facts, there’s more to uncover about the Strangers Things shadow monster-esque plant.

It’s an auspicious finding because the plant only blooms for a few weeks, and sometimes, it doesn’t bloom at all. Of the 76 species within the plant’s genus, colloquially called fairy lanterns, 30 have been discovered since 2011—even though scientists have known about the plant's existence since 1844. That's because it grows relatively low to the ground, so it’s easy to miss. With global destruction of the rainforests, the researchers speculate there are a few other plants within the genus that might be extinct already.

According to Beccari's notes, he found two more plants like Thismia neptunis. The researchers hope their recent luck will lead them to additional discoveries.