Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Taxonomy - what are we missing?

Theophrastus looked at plants and asked what distinguished one from the other. He saw differences in trees, shrubs, herbs, in roots and leaves, from one plant to the next, and so created the basics of modern taxonomy. Dioscorides looked at plants and asked what they could do for humans. He saw differences in uses, in medical applications and foods, and codified an early version of economic botany.

As fortune would have it, Dioscorides' work thrived from ancient times until the Renaissance. Theophrastus got buried in a pit and mostly forgotten. Plant taxonomy as we know it languished until Europeans regained an interest in the natural world. One big problem? No one knew what to call plants. No one knew if they were talking about the same plant. Local names were handy locally, but worse than useless scientifically. It took Linnaeus and his system of binomial nomenclature to finally make it possible to have a coherent discussion about a particular plant and for all participants to be certain that they were discussing the same thing. (See Anna Pavord's book The Naming of Names for an excellent overview.)

Linnaeus and his descendant taxonomists follow essentially the same rules as Theophrastus. They look at physical features of plants. Plants that share features get grouped together. Genetics and DNA mapping have allowed taxonomists to create groupings that are more evolutionarily accurate than groupings created by mere gross physical resemblance - for example, Sarracenia and Nepenthes are not close relatives even though they are both types of insectivorous pitcher plants - but the principle remains the same, plants grouped on the basis of physical similarity.

All of this means that plant taxonomy is a weird, free-floating subject of study. We memorize identifying features such as placentation, leaf arrangement, number of carpels and ovary placement. We use these traits in dichotomous keys to place plant specimens into families, genera, or species. So, for example, we know that members of the family Salicaceae are trees or shrubs, the lowermost bud scale is centered over the leaf scar, the flowers are reduced, unisexual, and subtended by hairy bracts, and that the fruits are loculicidal capsules. Members of the Fabaceae have root-nodules containing nitrogen-fixing bacteria, alternate leaves that are typically compound, stipules that range from inconspicuous to leaf-like, and usually five sepals.

But what does that tell me? These synapomorphies, or shared features, are the result of evolution, of millions of years of natural selection. The social Hymenoptera, which include bees and ants, appeared during the Cretaceous (145-65 mya). Angiosperms appeared between 130 and 125 million years ago. The Asteraceae appeared around 50 million years ago, during the Cenozoic era. The Cenozoic started 65 million years ago, after the end of the Cretaceous, and after the dinosaurs disappeared. This was the age of mammals, but also of various other kinds of life, especially insects. The Asteraceae thrived and radiated during the unstable climate of the Pleistocene - 2.5 million to 12,000 years ago - downright recent by human standards.

Homo sapiens, on the other hand, appeared about 200,000 years ago, and only got to looking and acting modern 50,000 years ago. What have we to do with plants? They were all here when we arrived on the scene - whatever morphological features they "chose" were not chosen with us in mind. Plants are speaking a very different language from ours, and on a different timescale. They were formed by insects and other animals and climates and geography that we can never know.

This, I think, is why economic botany tends to win out over pure systematics. We teach students economically important plants in each major plant family - peaches come from Rosaceae, cotton from Malvaceae - because otherwise it is awfully difficult to persuade them that they should know the classifications. The plants simply aren't talking to us. We don't assess flowers for landing strips or accessibility for our probosces. A magnolia flower has a lot to say to a beetle and rose perfume says a lot to bees, but to us they're just pretty. The ginkgo still makes fruit that may have been custom-blended by dinosaurs, and the durian makes giant spiny fruits that might have been intended for elephants. (Connie Barlow, The Ghosts of Evolution.) No wonder we focus our study on "useful" plants - otherwise we feel left out of the discussion.

Pure taxonomy - we need the names named, so that we can know what we're talking about. But I find it tantalizing, dancing around real answers. How is it that I can study botany for years and still can barely identify a single insect? Why are we studying plants in splendid isolation, instead of pairing them with their many partners? Why doesn't taxonomy start with a chronology, slotting plants in where they appeared, along with animals and other living organisms and continental positions and climate? (That's a poster I've been planning to make for years. Complicated, it is.)

There is so much more to why plants are what they are than their medical and fiber applications. Applied plant science is all very well, but the full story is so much more interesting. Even if it's still fragmentary, we could be telling it.

Monday, September 10, 2012

An Update on Balsam Pears, and other Colonial Plants

Last week I went to Clemson’s library and checked out Lawrence D. Griffith’s book Flowers and Herbs of Early America. This lovely book, published in 2008, is an encyclopedia of plants that would have been favorite garden plants in 18th century Virginia. Griffith is Curator of Plants of Colonial Williamsburg, and this book is the result of a project he conducted starting in 2001, in which he researched the plants that 1700s Americans would have been growing, found seeds for them, and grew them all.

My big takeaway? Upper-class Americans and Brits wanted to grow beautiful and exotic plants from other parts of the world. The list of 60 or so species he studied consists largely of species not from North America – some from South America, some from Asia, many from Europe. Europeans, for their part, wanted American plants. Even in the early 1700s ornamental gardeners were growing exotics. Seeds traveled almost as fast as information does today.

That Balsam Pear I found in the Oxford collection, Momordica charantia – Griffith writes that it was introduced into Europe in 1710 but before was widely used in its native regions of Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean. It was used as a stomach medicine and as a food crop. The balsam apple, M. balsamina, on the other hand, was introduced into Europe much earlier, appearing in Leonhart Fuch’s 1542 herbal, in which he describes it as “planted in many gardens.”

Griffith also grew Eupatorium perfoliatum, boneset, which Catesby collected in South Carolina. It’s preserved at H.S. 212 f. 74. Boneset is a native plant, commonly used as a treatment for fevers – the “bones” in boneset refer to breakbone fever, or dengue, which I can attest makes one’s entire skeleton ache. Griffith comments that Linnaeus named the species, suggesting that John Clayton collected it, though no specimen exists in the Clayton Herbarium in London. Catesby’s specimen doesn’t have a binomial label, so it appears that Solander didn’t identify this one. Interesting….

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Better Access to Images of Mark Catesby’s Work

We have updated our list of digital images of Mark Catesby’s Horti Sicci from the Sloane Herbarium, and his Natural History here:


This update takes advantage of new technologies for making these images more useful to a broad audience.

These digital images are served from the CITE Image Service, a technology developed for the Homer Multitext Project. The images and the service are hosted at the University of Houston’s High Performance Computing Center, thanks to the generosity and vision of Keith Crabb, its director.

The CITE Image Service provides canonical citation of images and regions-of-interest on those images. A “normal” request to the service has many parameters, allowing retrieval of images at different scales, portions of images, dynamic views of images, and various kinds of metadata. This can be complex, and complexity limits casual use.

Inspired by the Linked Ancient World Data Institute, an NEH funded event at New York University in the summer of 2012, my collaborators Neel Smith, Ryan Bauman and I have worked to make access to our data services more simple and more useful.

Each image in the Botanica Caroliniana collection is accessble via an HTTP-URI. That is, you can call up an image using something that looks like a normal URL. E.g.


“http://folio.furman.edu/citeimg/’ plus the canonical URN that defines the image.

This will invoke a “GetImagePlus” request, which will return:

* a view of the image…
* linked to a dynamic high-resolution view that you can zoom,
* its caption and statement of rights, and
* a link to the Image Citation Tool that allows scholars to generated URNs pointing to specific regions-of-interest on the image.

URNs that specify regions-of-interest work, too:


The data returned by these URIs is raw XML, and thus easily processed programmatically. The XML invokes a stylesheet that any modern web-browser will format for human readers and browsers.)

The goal is, as ever, to give access to our data that is as flexible as possible, that constrains users as little as possible, and that makes possible research that is serious or casual, human-centered or automated, according to the needs of individual scholars and readers.

(Of course, the raw data of these images is directly available at http://amphoreus.hpcc.uh.edu/botcar/ .)

Friday, July 27, 2012

An African Melon in South Carolina

In Oxford’s Sherard collection of Mark Catesby specimens lurks this tidbit, Sher-2195, a tendrilled vine with heavily dissected leaves, characteristic of the cucumber family, Cucurbitaceae. Patrick has identified it as Momordica charantia L., commonly known as Balsam pear, balsam apple, bitter melon, and bitter gourd. The common name is a bit confusing because a related species, Momordica balsamina, also goes by most of those names. No matter.

The notes on the specimen page read: “Bryonia.
Cucumis parvus Marianus, Bryonia alba foliis minoribus, polycarpus Pluk. Manu (?) 59” and “Mr. Catesby S. Carolina USA(?) from the upper part of the country.” The fact that this is in the Sherard collection in Oxford suggests that this plant was collected by Mark Catesby in South Carolina in 1722 or so. The note suggests that he found it some distance from the coast.

But this plant is not native to North America. Alan Weakley says that the vines of the genus Momordica are native to the Old World tropics. Momordica charantia is a native of Africa. Weakley’s flora contains no distribution map for Momordica charantia (though it does for M. balsamina), and notes only that the species has been found recently in the Panhandle of Florida. The USDA Plants distribution map doesn’t have any record of this species occurring in South Carolina.

So Mark Catesby cut a specimen of this plant in South Carolina in 1722. How did it get there?

Charleston, SC, was founded in 1670. It was a major port, and one of the points in North America where ships from Africa unloaded their cargoes of slaves and African plants. Could an African cucurbit make its way from Charleston to the “upper part of the country” by 1720? Fifty years is a long time. Was the plant in a settler’s garden? Did someone bring seeds from Europe?

Momordica was a known garden plant by the early 1800s. Thomas Jefferson planted balsam apple, apparently M. balsamina, in his garden at Monticello in 1810. The Monticello website claims that M. balsamina was introduced into Europe by 1568. (The source for this claim is the book Flowers and Herbs of Early America by Lawrence D. Griffith and Barbara Temple Lombardi, Yale University Press, 2008. I need to check this out of the Clemson library as soon as I head back to campus. I'm dying to know who brought it to Europe, where they got it, and how we know this.) Anyway, the plant had apparently been used as a medicine in Europe for over two centuries and was attractive enough for Jefferson to consider the seeds worth acquiring and planting in his annual bed.

Balsam apples appear in 18th and 19th century American paintings. The Pope Brown Collection of South Carolina Natural History contains this depiction of a Balsam Apple, either Momordica balsamina or Momordica charantia, painted c. 1765-1775 – not so long after Catesby. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has “Still Life: Balsam Apple and Vegetables, ” an oil painting done by James Peale of Maryland. So there were definitely Monardia growing on the East Coast between 1765 and 1820.

Eat The Weeds.com reports that M. charantia occurs from Connecticut south to Florida and west to Texas, as well as in parts south. It’s all over Florida today. This website comfortingly informs me that no one knows where it came from originally.

M. charantia certainly has a global distribution today. It’s a common vegetable throughout Asia, Africa, South America and the Caribbean. (Here's a nice botanical illustration done by a Japanese high school student for the Tsukuba Botanical Garden.) Despite its reputation for bitterness and the fact that it is poisonous if eaten raw, it apparently enhances a variety of dishes. It also has been used as a folk remedy all manner of ailment for centuries, and today is the subject of numerous studies of its pharmacological properties. Some experts think it might be useful for controlling diabetes.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Corpus Botany

Michael Dosmann, Curator of Living Collections at the Arnold Arboretum at Harvard University, gave this sage advice to anyone working to manage a collection of botanical data: “Don’t spend your life chasing taxonomy!” The world of botanical taxonomy is endlessly complex and dynamic, changing rapidly from month to month. It is a global effort to build a single hierarchical tree that captures reality, with contributors working from different directions using different and evolving techniques to understand a body of data that is expanding with new discoveries and shrinking from anthropogenic changes to the planet. It is built on a foundation that began with Theophrastus in the 4th Century BCE and was canonized by the 17th and 18th century natural philosophers of Europe, but this traditional foundation is being bent rather violently to accommodate three subsequent centuries of new understanding.

The traditional taxonomic ladder is captured in the mnemonic “King Philip Came Over For Good Sex” (shout-out to XKCD): Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species.

But the Integrated Taxonomic Information System (ITIS) presents online users with the following: Kingdom, Subkingdom, Infrakingdom, Division, Subdivision, Infradivision, Superclass, Class, Subclass, Superorder, Order, Suborder, Family, Subfamily, Tribe, Subtribe, Genus… (I cut it off at the Genus level, since the point was made).

This list makes clearly shows an ongoing process of rebuilding-the-ship-as-it-sails, shoehorning sub- and super-categories into the ladder in order to reflect a growing understanding of increasing complexity.

Hence Dosmann’s advice: You can’t wait for this to get sorted out before getting down to work.

For Botanica Caroliniana we want to collect and juxtapose useful data on the history of botanical science. We are not in a hurry and are willing to take the time to work methodically, to separate concerns, to recognize that the underlying data is more important than an immediate, glossy online presentation. But we don’t want to wait forever.

And we need to name plants. These names must be unique, stable, and machine-actionable. Linnaean binomials are pretty good, and traditional. They are supposed to be unique. They are not stable, as further study will inevitably split species, rearrange genera; ITIS and IPNI (the Integrated Plant Names Index) will happily provide countless synonyms for any given Linnaean binomial. They are certainly not machine-actionable.

For our digital library we need machine-actionable identifiers that we can use now. They need to be unique and stable within the digital library, while accommodating subsequent changes to the scientific reality of the objects to which they point. Here we can borrow from the disciplines of information science and corpus linguistics.

Corpus Linguistics. It is extremely difficult to make assertions about “how the English Language works”; people keep saying new things, keep changing how they speak, keep encountering new situations that need new word and new constructions. It is much, much easier to make assertions about “the language of New York Times reporting from 1941 - 1945”: How did the NYT refer to the enemies and allies of the United States? What verbs did they use for military victory and defeat, for casualty figures, to describe economic hardships at home? Answers to those questions are easier to formulate, and can be assessed in the context of the explicitly defined corpus. Many answers that are valid for one corpus would be invalid for another—racial slurs that were acceptable to the NYT in 1942 would never be allowed in print today; the language describing the Soviet Union (I bet) changed dramatically between 1943 and 1947. Corpus linguistics allows us to study real phenomena within defined constraints that make intractable datasets manageable.

Namespaces and Arbitrary Identifiers.  Information scientists deal with large numbers of things. Amazon.com sells billions of products; they need to keep track of those products, to share information about them through the digital medium that the company inhabits. Under these circumstances it is immediately obvious that the acts of identification and description must be separate. This is not complicated: each product has a unique, machine-actionable ID, which points to a body of data that includes description, price, reader reviews, and so forth.

Digital librarians have a greater challenge than online merchants, since their IDs need to survive in the wild, outside the confines of a particular database. The “Rachael Ray 1.5 Quart WhistlingTeakettle” has an Amazon ID of 1343145892. That ID, elsewhere on the Internet, points to a product in a Japanese cosmetics catalogue, a Seller Profile on Ebay.com, and a team-building event for Western Union Employees, to name a few.

The answer for a digital library is to use Namespaces. There are no doubt billions of digital objects in the online universe with an ID of 19. But there is only one with an ID that is urn:cite:botcar:sloane.19. That is, “a URN using the CITE protocol, in the BOTCAR namespace, in the Sloane collection, number 19.”

Corpus Botany. For Botanica Caroliniana, we give each object of our interest a URN identifier: herbaria, folios in herbaria, specimens on folios, digital images of folios, and the notional species which these represent.

These species URNs are the glue that holds this digital library together. So the species Acer negundo L. has a URN: urn:cite:botcar:species.Acernegundo. The last element of the URN is somewhat human-readable, but it is worth emphasizing that this is an ID, an arbitrary identifier, and nothing more. As a data-object, urn:cite:botcar:species.Acernegundo identifies a notional species that we can label, for human readers, Acer negundo L., that we can supply with bibliography, or that we can link to an ITIS record (TSN serial no. 28749).

The important thing, though, is that we can build our digital library simply by creating a graph of URNs, with each URN maintaining a strict separation of concerns. A specimen (urn:cite:botcar:sloane.422) appears on a folio (urn:cite:fufolio:CatesbyHS212.12) and is an example of a species (urn:cite:botcar:species.Acernegundo), which belongs to a genus (urn:cite:botcar:genera.Acer), which in turn belongs to a family (urn:cite:botcar:family.Sapindaceae); the folio (urn:cite:fufolio:CatesbyHS212.12) is illustrated by a digital image (urn:cite:fufolioimg:Caroliniana.Catesby_HS212_012_0493), and the specimen itself is illustrated by a region of interest on that image (urn:cite:fufolioimg:Caroliniana.Catesby_HS212_012_0493:0.423,0.2,0.549,0.715).

In the above sentences, every noun is represented by a URN, and each verb can be as well. This is the subject of a subsequent posting on this blog.

For now, it is enough to say that we do not have to capture the entire taxonomic world in order to build a useful digital library of historical scientific data. We can give URNs to the objects of our concern, and only to those objects. Because our linking mechanisms are arbitrary identifiers, the structure of our digital library can accommodate advances in scientific understanding easily. If genus Acer is split in two, and Acer negundo suddenly belongs to a new genus, we need make only one change to the hundreds of thousands of points in our graph.* We change one entry from:

urn:cite:botcar:species.Acernegundo isMemberOf urn:cite:botcar:genera.Acer


urn:cite:botcar:species.Acernegundo isMemberOf urn:cite:botcar:genera.SomeNewGenus

If Acer is renamed by some authority, but remains a member of Sapindaceae and the parent of Acer negundo, then we are under no obligation to change our URN, which can remain “the genus is referred to in Botanica Caroliniana as urn:cite:botcar:genera.Acer”. We can and should update any data fields pointed to by that URN to reflect the new scientific reality.

So this is what we are calling “corpus botany”: comprehensive coverage of data in a constrained, publicly defined corpus, with separation of concerns, tied together with namespaced, arbitrary identifiers.

The evolving collections of URN identifiers are store in public Google Fusion Tables:

  • Hortus Siccus Facsimile Model (Google Fusion Table)
  • Catesby Specimen Collection URNs (Google Fusion Table)
  • Botanical Species URNs (Google Fusion Table)
  • Botanical Genus URNs (Google Fusion Table)
  • Botanical Family URNs (Google Fusion Table)

  • The organization of these URNs into Collections, how we can use them in online publications, and the important topic of how to link them together, will be the subject of subsequent posts.

    * Genus Aster is problematic. Alan S. Weakley, in the Flora of the Southern and Mid-Atlantic States, says, “It is now abundantly clear that the traditional, broad circumscription of Aster, as a genus of some 250 species of North America and Eurasia, is untenable.”

    Monday, June 4, 2012

    Endangered Species in my backyard

    The New York Times had two good articles on endangered species in May. First there was on zoos, which must choose which species to save while letting others in their collections go extinct - a concept relevant to botanical gardens as well, which can only grow so many plants. Then there was an op-ed on endangered ecosystems, which mentioned the IUCN Red List, which at the moment contains nearly 20,000 endangered species. This caught my eye because I've been reading IUCN reports of endangered plants for my work updating a guide to endangered species. I only look at IUCN listings of plants that are also listed under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, so it's not that many, but what have noticed is that the Red List information is not always current. Many listings date from 1998, which was a long time ago in a world whose human population now adds a billion people every decade. This is NOT to criticize the IUCN, but to suggest that things may be much worse than we know.

    It may also to be to express a wish that reports on endangered and rare species include dates when describing abundance and distribution - it makes no sense to use the present tense when reporting data that was gathered in the past and that almost certainly does not describe a current state of affairs. A claim that "There are currently 15 populations with a total of 150 plants" is senseless if it is based on censuses done in 1982, 1991, and 1993, with different sites visited at different times.

    Our own endangered species list contains some alarming reports. Eragrostis fosbergii, Fosberg's love grass, has not been seen since 1996. There are no specific conservation measures currently underway for this species - how could there be? For the moment it is still considered "in danger of extinction throughout its range." I'll say. But is it extinct? How can we know?

    In this job I got to update the reports on two endangered plants that I know personally, the bunched arrowhead, Sagittaria fasciculata,

    and the mountain sweet pitcher-plant, Sarracenia rubra ssp. jonesii

    The depressing thing is that my updates were nothing of the kind. The USFWS has not published 5-year reviews on these species. The most current information on these two plants comes from Recovery Plans that date from the 1990s. The Center for Plant Conservation's reports are not much more recent. Likewise the Nature Conservancy's. I've noticed this about other Carolina plants, such as Geum radiatum from Roan Mountain. California and Hawaii have good up-to-date information on their endangered plants. Our neck of the woods? Not so much.

    Anyway, these are nice little plants. Much collected, perhaps trampled by hogs. Not many left. I'm not saying where they are, but it's not hard to figure out if you're interested in grabbing the last ones.

    Painting and Specimen, side by side

    Mark Catesby's Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands, published between 1729 and 1747, is justifiably famous for being the first work in English to describe the natural history of a region of North America. Catesby illustrated this volume himself with engravings of the plants he had seen and collected during his travels in the Carolinas, etc., between 1721 and 1726. Catesby apologized for his deficits as a painter, a trade for which he was untrained, but on the whole did a decent job. The publication of the Natural History was a big deal among western European naturalists; Catesby got elected to the Royal Society in 1733 on the strength of his work, and Linnaeus himself cited a number of Catesby's plates while describing North American species in his Species Plantarum.

    But here's the thing - Catesby only painted a small portion of the plants he saw, and only a very small portion of the plants he collected. Of the 432 (or so) vascular plant specimens in the two volumes in the Sloane, 64 of them have corresponding engravings in the Natural History, and many of those are duplicates. That leaves 368 specimens with no paintings. That correspondence is not entirely accurate, either; it's based on notes made on the folio pages by previous scholars who examined the Sloane collections with an interest mainly in their relationship to the Natural History. There are some specimens that do not appear to be exactly what Catesby has painted.

    Digitizing these collections makes two new things possible. First, we can now examine the full body of Catesby's scientific work, his actual collected data (a collection that will be fuller once we combine the Sloane materials with the Sherard specimens from Oxford). Second, we can easily examine Natural History engravings and herbarium specimens side by side.

    You can see these images side by side here, Alignment of Mark Catesby's Hortus Siccus with his Natural History. We've transcribed the printed descriptions from the Natural History along with any handwritten notes on the specimen pages. There are a few specimens that previous researches linked with different pages in the Natural History from the ones that we identified; in those cases, we've posted both Natural History pages so you can see for yourself what's going on.

    Friday, April 20, 2012

    Cultivation and Conservation

    Many plant species would not exist at all today if gardeners had not preserved them. The native American tree Franklinia alatamaha survives thanks to John and William Bartram, who collected seeds from the tree in Georgia in 1765 and began propagating it shortly before it disappeared completely from the wild around 1800. The spectacular Dove Tree, Davidia involucrata, exists in European and North America gardens through sheer luck; in 1900 plant collector E.H. Wilson went to China seeking the fabled tree only to discover that the one known specimen had been cut down for lumber. He searched far and wide in the woods to find a few more trees growing wild and thus managed to collect enough seed to introduce the tree to the nursery trade.

    Botanical gardens have bred plants extinct in the wild to reintroduce them to their native ranges. For example, Sophora toromiro, a small tree from Easter Island, went extinct in its natural habitat but was preserved for reintroduction by the Bonn University Botanical Garden. (Maunder et al. 2000) The Royal Botanic Garden, Kew, has collaborated with the Seychelles Botanic Garden to cultivate Rothmannia annae, a plant native to the Seychelles that is nearly extinct in its home environment.

    Kokia cookei, a tree endemic to Molokai, Hawaii, went extinct in the wild in 1918 but has been cultivated in botanical gardens since then; as of 2008, it was growing at Waimea Audubon, Lyon Arboretum, Volcano Rare Plant Facility, and the National Tropical Botanical Garden. The last known wild Cyanea pinnatifida, endemic to Oahu, died in 2001, leaving its cultivated progeny in the Lyon Arboretum and the National Tropical Botanical Garden. Lysimachia minoricensis, a plant of the Balearic Islands, went extinct in the first half of the 20th century, but botanists at the Botanical Garden of Barcelona cultivated plants from collected seed in 1926. The species is now found only in cultivation and seedbanks. Both of these plants have been the subject of experimental outplantings, in which propagated plants are reintroduced to the wild, though neither has produced self-sustaining wild colonies.

    Some plants thought to be extinct have been rediscovered in the wild. The Hawaiian plant Cyanea truncata was thought to be extinct after the last known individual died in the 1980s. Subsequent surveys discovered a few more wild plants, three of which survived as of 2006, and which provided genetic material that botanists have used to propagate more plants and outplant them into a protected habitat. As of 2007 the state of Hawaii’s Genetic Safety New Program and the Lyon Arboretum were maintaining seeds and tissue samples that could be used to propagate more plants in the future.

    When it was listed as an endangered species in 1996, Hibiscadelphus giffardianus was extinct in the wild. Only one tree has ever been known in the wild, from Kipuka Puaulu in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. This tree died in 1930, but Giffard, its namesake, collected seed before the tree died. These seeds have been propagated, and have produced genetically unique offspring (cause they’re from seeds, which are the product of sexual reproduction.) Cuttings from these cultivated trees were planted back into the now fenced original habitat at Kipuka Puaulu. As of 2008, over 400 plants survived, many of them fruiting or flowering.

    I know I keep going on about Hawaiian plants, which may seem to have little to do with Carolina botany. But they certainly have a problem with native species going extinct. Hawaii really is an astonishing hotbed of endangered species, most of which appear to have been destroyed by invasive introduced species – plants, pigs, goats, slugs. Ants – Argentine ants are a terrible problem, eating seeds and pollinators.

    So without apology, I'll mention a couple more Hawaiian plants. Hibiscadelphus hualalaiensis was historically known from three populations, located in the Puu Waawaa region of Hualalai, on the island of Hawaii. The last known wild tree was in Puu Waawaa Plant Sanctuary, owned and managed by the Department of Land and Natural Resources, State of Hawaii. This tree died in 1992. BUT - as of 2008, there were about 100 reintroduced plants living. 50 were planted at Puuwaawaa Sanctuary cabin after 1997; they were fruiting and flowering and the oldest of those had produced seedlings by 2007. There were also ten trees below the highway at Puu Waawaa, seven at Kaloko-Honokohau National Historical Park planted in 2006, and unknown numbers of plants at Kaupulehu Forest Reserve and Makala-Ooma forest. These plants were all producing seed every year, and seeds were geminating well. The species is widely available in cultivation. So is it extinct?

    Some stories are just depressing. Hibiscadelphus woodii was discovered in 1991 and first described as a species in 1995. When it was listed as an endangered species in 1996 it was known only from a single population of four individuals occurring at an elevation of 3,250-3,280 ft (991-1,000 m) at the site of its discovery in Kalalau Valley within the Na Pali Coast State Park on the island of Kauai. A falling boulder killed one plant and damaged two, so that by 2001 there were only two individuals left. By 2006 only one plant remained in the wild. There were no plants at all in cultivation.

    All of this raises a question, of course: can a botanical garden, or even a network of botanical gardens, seedbanks, etc, really conserve anything? It a species has ten plants left in the wild (or did in 2002, but may have none today for all we know), can growing its progeny in a greenhouse or a living collection really make a difference? These reintroductions - will they amount to anything? And the business of scientific control of plant collection - some of these older plants exist because random gardeners collected them for the horticulture trade. It was dumb luck that they also happened to preserve endangered species.

    What is certain is that without the work of the USFWS, the IUCN, and many random gardeners we would not know anything about the state of plant extinctions, and we probably wouldn't have the genetic material we have now. That's worth something.

    Tuesday, February 7, 2012

    Threatened, Endangered, Extinct in the Wild

    I've been updating a guide to endangered species - I'm doing all the plants, 576 of them. The previous edition was published in 2001. When I accepted the job, I knew it could leave me depressed. The odds of conditions having improved in the past ten years were low. I've completed about 80 entries, mostly based on information published by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, supplemented by the IUCN, and here are my initial reactions:

    1. Conditions have not improved. Out of 80 species covered in the previous edition, maybe one or two have increased their numbers. Most have declined.

    2. There is no current information on many endangered species. For a good percentage of the entries, I can't find any reports or data from the past decade. This is particularly common with Puerto Rican plants. For example, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has not published anything new on Crescentia portoricensis since 1991. Is it alive? Is it extinct? Who knows?

    3. Some plants listed as endangered might actually be extinct. Example: the US Fish and Wildlife Service ranks Ochrosia kilaueaensis as endangered. The IUCN gives it a Red List status of Critically Endangered, but that ranking dates from 1998. No one has reported seeing one since the 1940s.

    4. Some plants have inconsistent listings. Take the Hawaiian plant Cyanea pinnatifida. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service published a 5-year review in 2007 that maintained its endangered status. The IUCN Red List ranks it Extinct in the Wild. The last wild population consisted of single plant that died in 2001. The thing still exists in the Lyon Arboretum and some clones of the last survivor that have been planted in the Honoliuli Preserve. So I guess it's not exactly extinct. But you could hardly call it thriving.

    5. Some plants have such small populations as to be extinct for all practical purposes. The entire population of the Island barberry, Berberis pinnata spp. insularis, consisted of four plants in 2007. Four plants growing in separate locations, which makes natural cross pollination harder.

    What else? The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has some enthusiastic workers, at least on behalf of particular species. It seems that some species are well loved and some largely ignored, or perhaps so inaccessible as to be impossible to study carefully. Kudos to the Federal Register for making all its publications available in PDF format. What I like most to see are 5-year Reviews published on individual species. These are usually quite thorough assessments of the current state of a species. I like to see them published since 2007 - there are even a few from 2010 and 2011, but 2007 and 2008 is the best I can usually hope for. What I don't like to see are calls for information for 5-year reviews on species - those are not at all helpful, and often a sign that no one has updated the information in two decades. I hate to have to rely on a 1991 endangered species ranking report for my "update".

    The IUCN has a pretty nice website, with some good search capability. NatureServe is an excellent source for information on some plant species and published its own set of rankings. Those three are the best sources, especially the USFWS.

    There are a few other sites that are of somewhat limited utility for my purposes because they tend to repeat USFWS reports but that have assembled some good data on plant biodiversity. The Center for Plant Conservation has some information. The USDA Plants Database is a good place to look for taxonomic synonyms - important since taxonomy is not the USFWS's strongest suit. Likewise the Integrated Taxonomic Information System, for which I have high hopes for the future - wouldn't it be great to have all taxonomy organized, and have all plants linked to an ITIS number that would allow garden and herbarium curators to update taxonomy at the touch of a button? There also the USDA's Agricultural Research Service's Germplasm Resources Information Network, which hasn't been terribly useful yet for this project but I expect it could be. Good old Wikipedia often has links to the most up-to-date information on particular species. The Hawaiian Ecosystems at Risk Project is keeping tabs on Hawaiian endangered species, of which there are many, many, many. So many.

    The whole project is testimony to the value of digital information projects that assemble data and make it accessible. Our information on individual taxa is far from complete - but because all this data has been published online, I can see that, and can see what is known and what is not. Twenty years ago? No way could I have done this work with any accuracy. So three cheers for the world brain, which at least gives us a very clear picture of the progress of this catastrophe.

    Monday, January 23, 2012

    A pretty little orchid

    HS 212 f 55, Platanthera integra (Nutt.) A. Gray ex Beck.

    This plant is the yellow fringeless orchid. Catesby collected one in Carolina. Look hard at his, because you probably won’t ever see it growing in the wild in this state.

    Alan Weakley gives this range in his 2011 flora: “Savannas in the Coastal Plain, bogs in the Mountains and Piedmont. July-September. Essentially endemic to the Southeastern Coastal Plain, ranging from s. NJ south to FL and west to se. TX, with disjunct occurrences in TN (Eastern Highland Rim) and in bogs at low elevations of the Blue Ridge of NC. It is apparently now extirpated in the Mountains and Piedmont of NC.”

    This large range notwithstanding, the yellow fringeless orchid is nearly extinct in South Carolina today. NatureServe lists it as critically imperiled in the state. The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources listed it as S2 in 2006, meaning that it was imperiled state-wide because of rarity or factors making it vulnerable.

    What threatens our little orchid? Land use conversion, habitat fragmentation, and forest management practices such as fire suppression all cause problems. So does collection – so if you see one, don’t dig it up to plant it at home! (That doesn’t work for orchids anyway – they need specialized soil fungi to survive, so a transplanted orchid will likely die.)

    What to do about rattlesnake bites

    Early settlers took a keen interest in rattlesnake bites and what to do about them. It must have come as a shock to Europeans to encounter snakes that could deliver such nasty bites, along with those alarming rattles.

    One wonders, though, how serious the risk really was. Currently about 4000 to 7000 snakebites are reported every year in the U.S., out of a much bigger population than in the early 18th century. Epidemiology? Well, it’s a little embarrassing, but the overwhelming majority of snakebite victims are young white males, most of whom are bitten on the hands. North Carolina has the highest frequency of snakebites, and Georgia had the third-highest rate of fatalities. “Hey, ya’ll, it’s a snake! I'll git ’im!”

    So maybe Catesby and his ilk had reason to worry. Demographically and geographically they were in snakebite central.

    One sure cure for snakebite was a poultice made with rattlesnake root, from the genus Prenanthes. Prenanthes altissima, for example, grows widely in the woods in the Upstate. Here’s one growing near Oconee Station.

    Catesby collected a related rattlesnake root, Prenanthes autumnalis (HS 212 f 83). It’s just as good for treating rattlesnake bites. Catesby didn't mention the bite-treating properties, though.

    He did, however cite Aletris aurea, HS 232 f 105, as a possible cure: “The Root of this plant the Indians esteem good for the Bite of the Rattlesnake.”

    Now this is interesting. I can’t find anyone else recommending Aletris aurea as a cure for snakebite. I consulted Dr. William M. Hand’s 1849 work The House Surgeon and Physisian: Designed to Assist Heads of Families, Travellers, and Sea-Faring People, in Discerning, Distinguishing, and Curing Diseases; with Concise Directions for the Preparation and Use of a Numerous Collection of the Best American Remedies: Together with Many of the Most Approved, from the Shop of the Apothecary. All in Plain English. Dr. Hand informed me that Aletris Aurea can be used in the same was as its relative Aletris Alba, known as colic-root, among other colorful names. Made into a tea it can be used as a purgative to treat dropsy, indigestion, and to treat hysteric and flatulent colic. But nothing about snakebite. For that you’ll need to find a Prenanthes.

    Tuesday, January 3, 2012

    Dyet Drinks, Smilax, and Sarsaparilla

    HS 232 folio 31 contains a specimen of Smilax auriculata Walter, commonly known as earleaf greenbrier. (auriculata = eared) Catesby left us a note, which I have transcribed thus: “This I think is a kind of Smilax. It's called here China Root and is much in use for Dyet Drinks and is of great esteem for its virtues.”
    Click on the image to see a full-resolution view that you can zoom.
    That last word gives me pause. “Virtues” makes sense, but I am not 100% certain that my reading is correct. Could it read “baskets”? “bidness”? “brisket”?

    None of those seem likely. I’ll stick with virtues.

    Anyway, the more intriguing aspect of this note is that it mentions “dyet drinks.” Of all things! Did Catesby watch his weight? Could the Coca Cola company create a new “all natural” product based on Smilax?

    Our friend Google led me to enlightenment, as it always does. Smilax regelli, a related plant, seems to have been the original Sarsaparilla, and it appears that the name sarsaparilla has attached itself to various other species of Smilax. Smilax regelii grows in central and South America, but Catesby would have known about it because it came to Europe in 1500 and was widely touted as a cure for syphilis and rheumatism. Various species of smilax were used to promote sweating, as a general tonic, and to cure anything else that might be troubling you. Native Americans used Smilax to ward off illness and turn weakness to strength.

    Our plant, Smilax auriculata, has tubers that can be brewed into a nice drink. Then there is this nugget of wisdom: "Smilax auriculata ... was the principle source of a delicious jelly, called "red countie," formerly prepared by Indians of the southeastern United States from the fecula contained in its root stalks and tubers."

    What about “China Root”? There is a Chinese species of smilax called Smilax china. It’s a traditional Chinese remedy for gout, rheumatoid arthritis, and other diseases. I is said to be a diuretic, febrifuge, tonic, and anti-inflammatory, useful for flatulence, leprosy, epilepsy, and insanty, among other conditions. Believe it or not, Chinese medical researchers have just verified that it is a useful treatment for kidney disease. (Chen, 2011, Anti-hyperuricemic and nephroprotective effects of Smilax china L.) Smilax china commonly goes by the name China root; it is also called madhunuhi.

    My quick search has not revealed to me why Catesby used the common name China Root in 1721 to refer to an American plant. It suggests that the generic name Smilax and the plants of that genus were in wide enough use in Europe for all of them to blend together.

    And the dyet drinks? The drink sarsaparilla became popular in New Orleans in the 1800s, and it's certainly a standby in old-timey literature that features soda fountains. Pharmacists would brew Smilax root with licoric, cassia (maybe cinnamon if they could get it?), ginger, cloves, and coriander, which they would then mix with syrup, honey, tincture of ginger, and citric acid to create a refreshing beverage. Could be worth a try.