Get Regular Updates!
|So niche you’ve never heard of them: meet WA’s underground orchids



Mark Brundrett

So niche you’ve never heard of them: meet WA’s underground orchids

So niche you’ve never heard of them: meet WA’s underground orchids

A plant that’s not green and lives entirely underground? How is that possible?

So niche you’ve never heard of them: meet WA’s underground orchids

Ever looked at a plant in the ground and wondered how or why they got there?

Probably not, but it’s a lot of what botanists do.

And there’s one plant in WA that’s left scientists with more questions than answers: the elusive Western Australian underground orchid.

Also known as Rhizanthella gardneri, this orchid lives subterraneously, only slightly popping up out of the ground to display a small, hidden red flower.

Now that’s niche.

Just the tip is visible from the surface (coin for scale)
. View Larger
Just the tip is visible from the surface (coin for scale)
… but dig a little deeper, and there’s suddenly a lot more to them than you’d expect.
. Credit: Mark Brundrett
View Larger
Image |

Mark Brundrett

… but dig a little deeper, and there’s suddenly a lot more to them than you’d expect.

Mark Brundrett, who worked on a paper back in 2011 about the species, says the orchid is even considered unusual by those who studied it.

“It’s a very strange species in all our concepts about evolution of species,” he says.

Life ain’t always greener

Unlike almost every plant you can think of, Rhizanthella gardneri doesn’t have any green parts. Mark says it’s lack of colour is down to a complex three-way relationship with broom bush (from the Melaleuca genus) and fungi.

View Larger
Image|Mark Brundrett
With no chlorophyll, the underground orchid looks like it’s ghosting you.

“There’s a fungus that is shared between the broom bush, which is a shrub that the orchid grows under, and the orchid itself,” Mark says.

“It transfers nutrients very quickly from being carbon dioxide in the air, to being sugar inside the broom bush shrub, and then within a few hours its in the underground orchid”.

But that relationship is pretty one-sided.

“The underground orchid has no way of repaying anything for its food – it’s a parasite”.

So, the orchid has no need to be green, because it doesn’t photosynthesise. It gets all the food it needs from the fungi.

Following the fun-guy

Orchids often have a symbiotic relationship with fungi, but why the underground orchid has brought in broom bush for extra support is largely unknown. Mark says it could be because the broom bush also uses the fungi to obtain its own nutrients.

View Larger
Image|Mark Brundrett
The underground orchid hangs out between a visible surface bush and a hidden underground fungus.

Specialised pollination

Through some clever evolution, Rhizanthella gardneri has adapted to be pollinated by flies. It’s key to allowing the plant to no longer need a flower stalk.

“The fly crawls into the ground to find the flower, we’ve seen it do that – and you can actually see them hanging around where the orchids are.”

Much like a human swiping Tinder from the safety of their lounge room, this lets the orchid avoid emerging into the harsh light of day to reproduce.

“The insect’s doing the work of finding the flower, so the underground orchid doesn’t have to come aboveground”.

Creating it’s own niche

So, with a little adaptation, the orchid has been able to sustain its ~alternative~ underground lifestyle.

It’s seeing bizarre and beautiful plants like this that make botanists very excited to get outside, even if the plants themselves are not.

Particle Puns


Creative Commons Logo

Republishing our content

We want our stories to be shared and seen by as many people as possible.

Therefore, unless it says otherwise, copyright on the stories on Particle belongs to Scitech and they are published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

This allows you to republish our articles online or in print for free. You just need to credit us and link to us, and you can’t edit our material or sell it separately.

Using the ‘republish’ button on our website is the easiest way to meet our guidelines.


You cannot edit the article.

When republishing, you have to credit our authors, ideally in the byline. You have to credit Particle with a link back to the original publication on Particle.

If you’re republishing online, you must use our pageview counter, link to us and include links from our story. Our page view counter is a small pixel-ping (invisible to the eye) that allows us to know when our content is republished. It’s a condition of our guidelines that you include our counter. If you use the ‘republish’ then you’ll capture our page counter.

If you’re republishing in print, please email us to let us so we know about it (we get very proud to see our work republished) and you must include the Particle logo next to the credits. Download logo here.

If you wish to republish all our stories, please contact us directly to discuss this opportunity.


Most of the images used on Particle are copyright of the photographer who made them.

It is your responsibility to confirm that you’re licensed to republish images in our articles.


All Particle videos can be accessed through YouTube under the Standard YouTube Licence.

The Standard YouTube licence

  1. This licence is ‘All Rights Reserved’, granting provisions for YouTube to display the content, and YouTube’s visitors to stream the content. This means that the content may be streamed from YouTube but specifically forbids downloading, adaptation, and redistribution, except where otherwise licensed. When uploading your content to YouTube it will automatically use the Standard YouTube licence. You can check this by clicking on Advanced Settings and looking at the dropdown box ‘License and rights ownership’.
  2. When a user is uploading a video he has license options that he can choose from. The first option is “standard YouTube License” which means that you grant the broadcasting rights to YouTube. This essentially means that your video can only be accessed from YouTube for watching purpose and cannot be reproduced or distributed in any other form without your consent.


For more information about using our content, email us:

Copy this HTML into your CMS
Press Ctrl+C to copy

We've got chemistry. Want something physical?