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Chinese herb evolving to hide from humans to keep safe.

Usually vibrant green in all its glory, the Fritillaria delavayi stands out against its grey background of the Hengduan Mountains in South-West China. Typically, once a year it will produce a bright yellow tulip-like flower, but scientists are finding that these plants are losing their splendour in order to keep themselves safe.

The popularity of Fritillaria delavayi is rooted in their medicinal properties, and is used to treat lung conditions, bronchitis and bad coughs. The plant is so valuable that 1kg sells for around $480, and it requires roughly 3,500 bulbs to make a kilogram. Another reason for why they are so sought-after is that they grow in a very specific climate as they originate in the Hengduan mountains. They grow in high elevation, in a cold but dry climate which is difficult to replicate artificially. Other Fritillaria delavayi farms do exist out of their natural habitat, but consumers tend to view them of inferior quality, although that isn’t proven.

This curious genetic evolution of a plant physically blending into its environment isn’t known to have happened before. There are multiple reasons why a plant may evolve to camouflage itself. In general, when a plant evolves due to being eaten or over-harvested, it will evolve to be smaller as the larger plants will be cultivated, and the smaller ones will remain and consequently pass on their genes to the future plants. This is likely to have been what happened to the Fritillaria delavayi, but with its appearance rather than its size.

Humans have shaped the aesthetic of plants through domestication for years, and it’s rather ironic that a plant is able to hide itself to aid its survival, when typically it has been humans who have modified either its genetic makeup to change its natural properties, or humans have modified its environment through climate change, forcing plants to adapt.

The Chinese government is set to update the conservation status of the plant to reflect the increasing threat that it faces. This will hopefully allow the Fritillaria delavayi to pass on its most striking gene.

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