I first founda colony of fairy lanterns Thismia rodway in the gully in 2004.
Thismias, or fairy lanterns, are succulent herbs that belong to the Burmanniaceae family; they are closely related to orchids. They grow almost entirely underground, are usually leafless, lack chlorophyll and are thus unable to photosynthesise. To obtain the nutrients they require, these saprotrophic plants rely on a symbiosis with fungi. However, as fungi are also unable to photosynthesize, a photosynthetic plant must also be involved in the association. It is possible that, like the underground flowering orchid of Western Australia, Rhizanthella gardneri, which is linked to a melaleuca species via its mycorrhizal fungus, thismias may be associated with Olearia argophylla or Bedfordia.
Little is known about the distribution and ecology of these rarely seen plants and their method of pollination remains a mystery. It is thought that pollen may be spread by termites, ants, flies or other small invertebrates that inhabit the litter layer. The strong fishy smell emanating from the flower may serve to attract litter layer detritivores to perform this function.
Thismias are mostly found throughout the tropics, with 32 species in tropical America, 25 in Southeast Asia, 19 in tropical Asia, and one each in Japan, the US state of Illinois and New Zealand. In some cases the story of their discovery is as intriguing as the plants themselves.
In 1912, Thismia americana was collected from a low sand prairie on the Chicago Lake Plain in Illinois by Norma Pfeiffer, then a botany student. She found more plants in the same area the following year, but that was the last reported sighting. This is hardly surprising given that the site is now covered in landfill and is highly industrialised.
In 2000, researchers surveying the botanical riches of Jade Mountain in the Yushan National Park, which covers Taiwan’s central mountain range, collected a white tentacled thismia which they named Thismia taiwanensis. This newly described species appears to be endemic to the area, having never been found elsewhere in Taiwan or on the Chinese mainland.
In 2001, a third thismia species for Australia was found by fungi enthusiast, Pat Jordon, at Bundanoon, in New South Wales. At first it was mistaken for a coral fungus (Clavaria sp.) because of its tentacle-like projections. It has since been named Thismia clavariodes because of this resemblance.