In the gloom of the caves and gorges of China, a plant has been discovered thriving in as little as .04 percent of full sunlight.

The three newly described species are nettles (Pilea sp.), in the same family as the stinging nettles, which can be the bane of the unwary hiker. The Gollum-like greenery lives only in a few locations, so one of the species is listed as endangered and two as vulnerable on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List.

"When my Chinese colleague Wei Yi-Gang from the Guangxi Institute of Botany first mentioned cave-dwelling plants to me, I thought that he was mistranslating a Chinese word into English,” study author Alex Monro of Royal Botanic Gardens Kew said in a press release. “When we stepped into our first cave, Yangzi cave, I was spell-bound. It had an eerie moonscape look to it and all I could see were clumps of plants in the nettle family growing in very dark condition".

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The newly discovered nettles grow in the ancient limestone formations of Guangxi province in southwest China. The exposed limestone is some of the oldest in the world and extends south into Burma and Vietnam. The plant life of the caves and deep canyons remains largely unexplored, meaning there may be other cave plants growing in Asia.

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The paper describing the new species was published in the journal PhytoKeys.


Flowers of a new species from the nettle family known only from caves, Pilea cavernicola, where it grows in very low light conditions. (CREDIT: Alex Munro)

Botanists Wei Yi-Gang, Guangxi Institute of Botany, and Alex Monro, Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, standing within Yangzi cave with clumps of plants from the nettle family nearby. (CREDIT: Alex Munro)