New blue poppy species discovered

New species, Meconopsis Bhutanica (left) up to now confused with M.Discigera (Right) (Photo Courtesy: Tin Lever & Toshio Yoshida)

In what could be both the discovery of a new species as well as a correction of historical botany facts, the Bhutanese blue poppy has been declared as a different species different from its yellow colored cousins found in Sikkim and Nepal.

The Bhutanese plants were named separately as blue-purple flower Meconopsis bhutanica.

Until recently it was thought that the Bhutanese blue poppy found mainly in the highlands was part of the Meconopsis discigera species found in Sikkim and Bhutan.

The flower is a unique and rare one that grows at a high altitude on rocks and moraine dams. It produces a series of leafs over the years and then only flowers. This beautiful highland flower has four to five petals and is blue-purple in color.

Botanists, Yoshida from Japan and Christopher Grey Wilson from Europe examined the detail of the photographs of the Bhutanese plants and compared them with Nepalese plants of Meconopsis discigera and concluded that the two populations are distinguishable as different species.

The Bhutanese flower was distinct from M. discigera, as the flower color is blue-purple, not pale yellow and its shape is dish- or cup shaped and not bell-shaped. There is also a difference with the obconic-cylindric and not barrel-shape of the fruit capsule.

In mid August 1995, Yoshida followed the Jhomolhari Trek in west Bhutan as a trek leader and found plants of Meconopsis with a typical dark red stylar appendage but with some fallen blue-purple petals. These plants were found in the vicinity of Tso Phu Lake growing on unstable screes.

One of members of the trek revisited the area around Tso Phu in July the following year and took photos of the plants in flower. Since then, many other trekkers followed the Jhomolhari Trek observing en route this strange and attractive blue poppy. The report says that numerous photographs of this species are now available, although sadly, little additional herbarium material. By examining many photos of the plants taken by trekkers, more differences between those of east Nepal and west Bhutan were recognized. This has been in spite of the current restriction on the collection of plant material in Bhutan.

Meconopsis bhutanica was first collected by Roland E Cooper on 27 July 1914 in flower and on 28 September in fruit, near the head of Thimpu Chu above Barshong at an altitude of 4,000m. These specimens were, however, ill-preserved and it proved very difficult to examine the details of flowers and leaves. The famous four-member British team that explored Bhutan in 1949 (Frank Ludlow, George & Betty Sherriff and JH Hicks) collected the species four times at different stages

Toshio Yoshida is a photographer and amateur botanist based in Chiba, Japan Christopher Grey-Wilson is a botanist, horticulturist and writer

The report says that from a horticultural point of view, members of this flower group have great potential. However, like so many high Himalayan alpines they require exacting conditions in cultivation. Primarily they need cool moist summers and dry winters.

In the wild, plants are protected under a deep layer of snow during winter months, while in summer the atmosphere is kept moist by the monsoon which suppresses temperatures, especially at altitude. Although seed M. bhutanica, has been introduced on a number of occasions over the years, plants have not persisted in cultivation for any length of time.

Both species are monocarpic and take several years to reach flowering maturity. Seed is set only under ideal conditions, and plants can be easily lost if they fail to set seed if one unfavorable season follows another.

However, gardeners find these types of plants a challenge and will try to perfect their cultivation whenever seed is available. Many Himalayan Primula and Gentiana species are equally demanding. The report says that what is certain is that these high altitude species of Meconopsis are among the most beautiful alpines to be found anywhere in the world.

This latest discovery published in June 2012 will further add to Bhutan’s reputation as a global bio-diversity host spot with a host of plant and animal life.

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