Scientists hoodwinked by touch-me-not plants for decades

March 13, 2023

Growing in the heart of the world's deepest valley are two plants that have fooled scientists for decades.

Two species of the 'touch-me-not' genus (Impatiens) – the Blue Diamond (Impatiens namchabarwensis) and Toothed Busy Lizzie (Impatiens arguta) are found in the remote Tsangpo Gorge that meanders around the highest peak in the Eastern Himalayas, Mount Namchabarwa.

Both plants are adorned with trumpet-shaped flowers in a spectrum of colours, and their similarities made many scientists believe they belonged to the same species.

But on this occasion, the experts were wrong.

In a recent study published in the Nordic Journal of Botany, researchers from XJTLU and the University of Bonn in Germany have identified some vital differences between the plants that disentangle their classification and confirm they are separate species.

XJTLU's Dr Bastian Steudel, a corresponding author of the study, says: "We are facing a mass extinction of species worldwide, so it is essential to recognise every species and their distribution patterns.

"A species of plant can have flowers with many different colours; just think of the pink and white of a common daisy. So it can be challenging to differentiate between species with similar shapes and habitats, such as I. namchabarwensis and I. arguta. But we have now shown they are pollinated by different insects and have more differences than previously thought.

"Our findings are a small piece in the species identification and distribution puzzle, but plants such as I. namchabarwensis, which are only found in narrow habitats, are often particularly interesting for conservation programmes."

Due to the uncertainty regarding its taxonomy, the study reports that I. namchabarwensis has been neglected by existing literature, including the standard compilation of all known plant species found in China, Flora of China.

A name of its own

Impatiens namchabarwensis was found in 2003 during an excursion to the Eastern Himalaya mountain range and described as a new species in 2005. It quickly circulated in Western countries as a novelty for gardeners who collect species of 'touch-me-nots', especially due to its appealing colours.

As the valley where it was discovered is also the habitat of the widespread species I. arguta, many scientists believed the two plants to be one species.

Two Impatiens plants from diiferent angles

Typical flowers of I. namchabarwensis (left) and I. arguta (right) in front view (A), side views (C and D), and dissected (B). Pictures of I. namchabarwensis were taken from a cultivated plant at Zurich Botanical Garden, Germany, by René Stalder. Pictures of I. arguta were taken from a cultivated plant at the Botanical Garden of Bonn by Stefan Abrahamczyk.

Dr Steudel explains: "Every year, new species of plants, animals, and microbes are identified. Sometimes these new species and their suggested names are not accepted by other researchers. They think the organism belongs to an already-known species and consider the new name just an alternative. This process is called synonymisation.

"Synonymisation is very important; otherwise, everybody would know the species by a different name and communication between experts would be very difficult."

Despite the value of synonymisation, in some cases, the plants are indeed different species and therefore earn the right to a new name. The Blue Diamond (I. namchabarwensis) is such an example.

The researchers observed that I. namchabarwensis is pollinated by hawk moths and tends to live for two to three years, whereas I. arguta is preferred by bumblebees and lives for eight years. They suggest the difference in pollinators is due to the lower petals of the plants facing in slightly different directions; I. arguta creates a platform for its flower visitors with horizontal petals, in contrast to the downward-facing leaves of the I. namchabarwensis.

Dr Steudel explains the impact of identifying these differences: "It would be a real pity if such a beautiful species as I. namchabarwensis were confined to survive only in collections and be extinct in nature.

"But it would be even worse if all knowledge of the plant species went extinct as well, because it was misclassified."

The study, Impatiens namchabarwensis is distinct from I. arguta, is published in the Nordic Journal of Botany and can be read here.


By Catherine Diamond

Edited by Patricia Pieterse

March 13, 2023


XJTLU researcher part of global team addressing knowledge gaps in biodiversity loss research
Science and Technology

XJTLU researcher part of global team addressing knowledge gaps in biodiversity loss research

“Biodiversity loss is one of our biggest environmental challenges in the world, probably more important than climate change. The problem of climate change ca...

Learn more
Switching it up: Why some plants prefer hummingbirds, not bees

Switching it up: Why some plants prefer hummingbirds, not bees

Many plants require the help of animals such as bees, birds and bats to transfer their pollen between plants for reproduction. As a result, each plant specie...

Learn more
Dr Bastian Steudel: Be curious about nature

Dr Bastian Steudel: Be curious about nature

“I hope to establish a lab with enthusiastic students and look very much forward to do lab experiments with microcosms and field studies. Suzhou is situated ...

Learn more