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Astonishing: Palm That Flowers and Fruits Underground

New species flummoxes botanists as they admit they have no idea how its flowers are pollinated.

The exposed roots and fruits of Pinanga subterranea
The exposed roots and fruits of Pinanga subterranea | Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew

A new-to-science palm species has been discovered in Borneo with the remarkable ability to flower and fruit underground. How the rare palm has survived is a mystery, as most plants have evolved to develop their flowers and fruit above ground to facilitate pollination and the dispersal of seeds.

Pinanga subterranea is the only known species of palm to flower and fruit below ground,” said Dr Benedikt Kuhnhäuser, a future leader fellow at London's Royal Botanic Gardens, who was part of the research team that collected specimens and ascertained that it was a new species. “Flowering and fruiting below ground is mind-boggling and seemingly paradoxical because they appear to prevent pollination and dispersal. We now know bearded pigs eat and disperse Pinanga subterranea’s fruits, but we’ve yet to find out how and by whom the flowers are pollinated.”

Only a very small number of plant species have evolved to flower or fruit underground. But only one other plant is thought to do both. Exclusive flowering and fruiting below ground, as discovered in Pinanga subterranea, is incredibly rare,” said Kuhnhäuser. “We’re only aware of one other plant that does that: the small underground orchid genus rhizanthella.”

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