It looks like 'black doll's hair,' is a vital ingredient in Chinese New Year vegetable dishes and has been discovered in Australia for the very first time by botanists at the Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney. ‘Fat Choy' or ‘Hair Moss' is a member of the ‘gelatinous blue-green algae' group and, up until now, was only thought to occur in the deserts of China, North America and Africa. Director of Plant Sciences at the Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney, Dr Tim Entwisle and botanist Stephen Skinner, discovered the species in samples sent to them from different sites in arid regions of central Australia. Algae, along with mosses, fungi, liverworts and lichen, are collectively known as ‘cryptogams,' some of Australia's most overlooked and least understood plants.

‘Hair Moss' is just one of 60 species of cryptogam that have been found for the first time in Australia. These new discoveries, including 12 completely new species, have been published in the latest issue of the Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney's scientific journal Telopea.
"Cryptogams have one feature that sets them apart from all other plants –– hidden reproductive organs. Hence the name ‘crypto' –– hidden or puzzling –– and ‘gam' –– reproductive parts. They play a vital role in maintaining ecological health, being nature's recyclers," said Dr Tim Entwisle, one of Australia''s foremost algal experts.

"Fat Choy algae is a popular delicacy at Chinese New Year, 
because its name in Chinese sounds like 'wealth'. 
It also reputedly cleanses the colon," said Dr Entwisle. 

Cryptogams are particularly important in extreme environments, such as high latitudes, high altitudes and arid regions, where they play critical roles, such as binding soil surfaces. For instance, severe dust storms seen in inland Australia over the past few years are thought to result from damage to cryptogamic soil crusts.

"There are at least ten times as many cryptogams as flowering plants in Australia –– an estimated 250,000 compared to 22,000. Yet they are our most poorly understood group of plants," Dr Entwisle said. Research by Gardens' staff and honorary associates is making a major contribution to our knowledge of Australian cryptogams. The work was funded by the State Government, through the NSW Biodiversity Strategy and the Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney.