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A Brand New Wintergreen (Plant, Not Gum)

BRIT’s new Herbarium Director Dr. Peter Fritsch and his Chinese colleagues published an exciting new species discovery in October: Gaultheria gonggashanensis, in the wintergreen genus of the heath family (Ericaceae). The species is named for its unique home on the slopes of spectacular Mt. Gongga in western Sichuan Province, China. Peter and his colleagues knew of the existence of this species from two herbarium specimens collected in 1941 and 1980 by Chinese botanists, but no one, including them, clearly understood that these specimens represented an undescribed species because the specimens were only in fruit, whereas flowers were needed for positive identification. So in September of 2011, Peter and his colleagues traveled to Mt. Gongga, the place where they suspected that the plant was originally collected, to see if they could find specimens of the plants in flower.

Mt. Gongga in western Sichuan Province, China

At 24,790 feet, this mountain, known as Minya Konka to the Tibetans in the region, is the third highest in the world outside of the Himalayas, extending from its lifeless summit down to lush subtropical forests just above sea level. It also contains Hailuoguo Glacier, most notable for its drop down to relatively low elevation in coniferous forests at 9400 ft. After extensive searches of the glacier’s valley, the team encountered the species on an open gravel slope in a single, small patch growing with other alpine plants at 10,600 feet elevation. The species is a beautiful, low, mat-forming shrub with small leaves and delicate, bell-shaped, white to pinkish flowers. The fact that this species is known with certainty only from this one location means that it is by definition rare and endangered, and its discovery will now provide the chance to develop effective management strategies for its protection. The article was published in the Nordic Journal of Botany, where you can see the full publication and more images of the plant.

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