‘Like Finding Life on Mars’: Why the Underground Orchid is Australia’s Strangest, Most Mysterious Flower

If we find life on Mars, will it be as strange as Australia’s Underground Orchids? These bizarre plants, also known as Rhizanthellas, live their whole lives below ground. They even bloom underground, and smell like vanilla. Known to science since 1928, there are now five identified species around the continent. All five are endangered, and pose unusual conservation challenges, since it’s tough just to find them. Their small tubers and weird pink flowers rarely break the soil surface.

Almost all other orchids have tiny, dust-like seeds which blow in the wind, but Rhizanthella seeds are like little, vanilla-scented ball bearings. They’re probably eaten and dispersed by wallabies and bandicoots, but those animals are extinct in some areas. Reestablishing their populations may be necessary for the long-term survival of these orchids. For now, these alien flowers are still among us.

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