Friday, September 25, 2015

NYT taxonomic inaccuracies, again

I just sent this letter to the Corrections office at NYT, a newspaper that "welcomes comments and suggestions, or complaints about errors that warrant correction." Lets see if this taxonomic mix-up warrants correction in their minds.

"Dear New York Times Editor,

In a recent article about blue cheese, you write:
"To produce Roquefort blue cheese, for example, cheese makers mix Penicillin roqueforti into fermenting curds. "(Sept 24, online and in print)

No, it is not Penicillin roqueforti. It is Penicillium roqueforti. Penicillin is the antibiotic drug derived from some Penicillium fungi. This looks like a typical autocorrection mistake, added after Carl Zimmer wrote the article. Check with Carl Zimmer, I am sure he didn't write it that way.

As you surely know, words matter. Here is the link to the species page for this species in Species Fungorum.

Thank you"

Update - sorry, but the link to Species Fungorum seems to be down because their website is currently down.  Try a little later.  

Update 2:  HAHAHA!  New York Times has corrected the spelling to "Penicillim roqueforti".   Not sure if this is an improvement...but it certainly is still incorrect.  Dear NYT, each species on this earth can have one and only one accurate spelling of its species name. 

Update 3: OK, now it is corrected to the correct spelling of the species name. "To produce Roquefort blue cheese, for example, cheese makers mix Penicillium roqueforti into fermenting curds."  REad the article, is ia very good.
NYT also added a correction at the bottom of the article, but the correction does not refer to wrongly spelled scientific names in earlier versions, but to the isolating of the active compound: "An article on Tuesday about the evolution of molds used for cheese making referred imprecisely to the isolation of the antibiotic penicillin. While Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin in 1928, he did not isolate the active substance." 

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Dear New York Times, when will you start to care about taxonomic accuracy?

As a subscriber and frequent reader of The New York Times, it surprises and depresses me greatly that not more care is taken in checking facts and accuracy when it comes to scientific names of organisms and how these are formatted and presented.  Many of the problems and inaccuracies that we see in publications, media, and in web content are perpetuated by The New York Times, a publication that prides themselves in correcting any factual error, however how small.  But for taxonomic errors, they do not.  There are exceptions of course, such as Carl Zimmer's writing, but overall a general taxonomic fact checking is lacking, especially outside the Science section.

The main problems within biological taxonomy are:
  1. Non-capitalizations of scientific family names
  2. Capitalization of  species names
  3. Choosing to not format species and genus names in italics
  4. Wrong names for parts of organisms
  5. Images of the wrong species or other inaccurate image data
Lets dig into the details:

1. Non-capitalizations of scientific names of rank above species (orders, families, genera, etc.)

A the recent article in the Travel Section about the island of Runmarö in the Baltic archipelago featured entomologist Fredrik Sjöberg (NYT Sept 4, by Stephen Heyman). In the article, his study group, the hoverfly family Syrphidae, is consistently and erroneously written as syrphidae.
"Fredrik is exclusively interested in this family of insects, syrphidae, which is distinguished by an uncommon flair for disguise."
Oh, in case you wonder how a wonderful Syrphidae looks like (since the article doesn't show one), here is one:
unknown Syrphidae fly  P8170593croppedq
Unknown species of a hoverfly of the insect family Syrphidae, from New Jersey, USA. 
(PS. E-mail me if you know the species, I'd love to know.)
Creative Commons photo by Lena Struwe. (source)
Spelling Syrphidae as syrphidae is like spelling the entomologist's name as fredrik sjöberg, writing Oprah as oprah, or New York City as new york city.  There are a few exceptions of people that choose to spell their names without capitalizations, like bell hooks. But in the science world, nobody ever spells this without capitalization. Capitalization is not optional for the scientific names for families, orders, and other higher ranks of larger groups of organisms.  Why would NYT choose not to follow the scientific set standard?

The International Code for Zoological Nomenclature has very good, clear advice for how taxonomic names should appear in popular media, see this link.

(Of course, NYT refuses to put in the umlauts from foreign languages as well, but that is a separate matter. It is Sjöberg, not Sjoberg, and Runmarö, not Runmaro.  The meaning of the words change in Swedish if you remove the umlauts, so good luck googling some of these names :) . Wikipedia, on the other hand, correctly presents the words with umlauts, see for example Tomas Tranströmer, which NYT links to in the article above.)

2. Capitalization of species names
Just a few days ago a new hominid species was published, an astonishing and exciting find.  New York Times featured this prominently (Sept 10, 2015, in an article by John Noble Wilford): 
Headline of Homo naledi story in The New York Times.
Screenshot by
The new species of the genus Homo (our own genus), is called Homo naledi, but The New York Times capitalizes the word naledi in the title (presumably due to their editorial style using Title Case capitalization in headings). In the text of the article, the name is written as "Homo naledi" (with correct capitalization) throughout. The problem here is of course that the readers will think that the new species is called Homo Naledi, not Homo naledi (its true name), if they just see the title.

PBS' NOVA series does it better: " Homo naledi, Superhenge, and Humankind: NOVA Next Week in Review", so of course the species epithet can be in lower case letters even when using Title Case, but that means that you need to know something about taxonomic names.

For genus names, and for a species (which has a genus name and a species epithet, like Homo naledi) there is also really no choice in capitalization. According to the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature:
"Following the principle of binominal names (i.e. composed of two names) a species name is a combination of genus name and species name. The genus name comes first, and must start with a capital letter, the species name second, with a lower case letter (Art. 28; Appendix B6). This shows the hierarchy between genus and species; a genus may include a number of different species." (link) (my bolding)
3. Choosing to not format species and genus names in italics
It is recommended to put at least genus and species names in italics, and in scientific literature this is nearly always done and for a good reason.  This is a lot easier today when books, magazines and newspapers are no longer typeset, but run on digital presses or completely provided as online documents.

The International Code of Zoological Nomenclature justifies this:
"In order to denote a clear distinction between scientific names of organisms and designations in common language, scientific names of all ranks should appear in the same distinctive, and preferably italic, type." (link)
New York Times article about a new snail species, Rissoella morrocoyensis, showing the name without italics. Screenshot by (link)
As far as I can tell The New York Times never put any species names in italics. However, they do use italics for other items in the papers, such as identification lines on published letters to the editor (see question and explanation here), so it is not a technical decision but an editorial one. To highlight the value of taxonomy and science, and to clarify the proper use of taxonomic names for organisms, it is highly recommended to put all species names in italics when you can.

4. Wrong names for parts of organisms
Article about opium poppy harvest in Mexico in The New York Times.
Screenshot by (link)
"Though shy, she perks up when describing her craft: the delicate slits to the bulb, the patient scraping of the gum, earning in one day more than her parents do in a week." (link)

Bulbs grow in the ground (usually), they formed by fleshy leaves on a very short stem at the base of a plant (Wikipedia has a good description). What is harvested on the opium poppies is the gummy sap that is oozing out of the fruits, the capsules, when cut.  In the printed version, one photo caption by New York Times also used the word 'pods', which has no precise botanical meaning. Would you call the tail of an elephant its trunk?  This is the same kind of mistake, and it is a ridiculous one to botanists and gardeners and generally educated people.

5. Images of the wrong species or other inaccurate image data
An earlier post on this blog featured the mistakes published in the review of the world-class foraging restaurant NOMA in Copenhagen (July 6, 2010, article by Franz Bruni).  The New York Times was notified that one of their photos of pine cones was incorrectly described as 'thuja cone', and with thuja being a toxic species, this was a mistake that certainly should have been corrected.  It was not.  It still features a pine cone listed as a thuja cone (see screenshot from today below). Not only are these two different species, they are also different genera and in different families.  I doubt that Rene Redzepi serves his guests potentially toxic thuja cones. 

The slide show accompanying the article about the NOMA restaurant features a pine cone in the photo, but it is described as a Thuja cone. Screenshot by  (link)
Why does taxonomic accuracy matter?
It is pretty simple. 
"In all cultures, taxonomic classification means survival. 'The beginning of wisdom, as the Chinese say, is calling things by their right name.' " E. O. Wilson
And that right name is the name of the species, the family, the organism's part, and so on.  We are 100% dependent on other species for our survival and future, and the taxonomic sciences make it possible to study these, be it microbes, parasitic diseases, edible plants, or pollinating insects.

The essay by Helen MacDonald in The New York Times (June 19, 2015) fantastically describes what happens when you can put words to the world around you, in this case using field guides.  You start to see things, remember things, care about things, and love things, and these things, be it forests, flowers, bugs or birds, are things that matters to humanity on large as well as personal scales. Names matter a lot.

The New York Times has a great opportunity to be a model and leader in public education about biodiversity and taxonomy among newspaper media.  It is not that hard, and it is something that is desperately needed in the US. Spell and format the scientific names correctly, actually describe what a hoverfly is in an travel article, do not publish an image saying a toxic plant is edible confusing foragers and foodies, know what plant part you talk about, and so on... Start being the standard for other media in the field, please.

I think that the sloppiness shown in The New York Times when it comes to morphology and species taxonomy would never be accepted when it comes to historical facts and names related to people.  For scientific facts this doesn't seem to matter to the editors, since fact-checking is lacking and pointed out errors persist and are not even corrected.

It would be very easy for The New York Times to contact a couple of biologists well-versed in taxonomy and systematics within their fields, hire them to be on call, and have them fact check all articles mentioning or showing species and organisms, regardless of newspaper section.  Scientific accuracy is of course needed in areas like travel, food, agriculture, and political news too; species do not stop to exist outside of the Science section.

"What’s in a name? Scientific names for animals in popular writing" (ICZN)
International Code of Nomenclature for algae, fungi, and plants (ICN)
International Code of Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN)

Friday, July 10, 2015

No, you are not allergic to pretty flowers...

During this year's pollen season, the usual misinformation about pollen allergies crop up and grow fast in the media, online as well as in print.  Sneezing and astmathic people and their medications are often incorrectly associated with colorful flower imagery, when in reality very few people are allergic to the flowers that most of us know and love. But to advertising people, small tiny green flowers with dangly stamens might not be as photogenic as make-a-wish dandelion fruits and fields of flowering canola.
These ox-eye daisy flowers in this Shutterstock image on the Rocky Mountain Allergy Asthma Immunology website has absolutely nothing to do with pollen allergies. They are just pretty flowers. 
(Screenshot image by, source.)
A screenshot from a quick search on the keywords 'pollen allergy' on the photo website Shutterstock, shows an abundance of photos of insect-pollinating plants, flowering fields, and dandelion fruiting heads which has nothing to do with pollen allergies.  Some photos get it right but not the majority. (Screenshot by, source.)

Pollen, which are special small cells in seed plants that contain the male sex cells (no, it is not gross, just the fact), are produced in flowers and when the pollen lands on the female part of a flower or cone (the landing platform is called a stigma), the pollen germinates and a pollen tube grows into the female style and down into the ovary where it can fertilize the plant's egg cell and make a seed. This is not gross, just the facts, and in fact, if there were no pollen, there would be no fruits, no flowers, no seed plants. Seed plants are those that set seed, so that means conifers and flowering plants, but not ferns and mosses, because they have spores instead. Not all pollen causes allergies and neither does all spores.
Pollen grains from many different plant species shown in a photo from a Scanning Electron Microscope. (Public domain image from Dartmouth College Electron Microscope Facility via Wikimedia Commons, source.)

So, how does the pollen gets transported from the male to the female part in the flower? Most plants use animals as transport helpers (for bee pollination, etc.), but some plants have wind-pollination.  If you are adapted to use wind as the pollination method, then you are going to have some problems to overcome - first, wind is kind of random so you don't know where your pollen would end up, so you better make LOTS of pollen; second, you don't want your pollen to stick to anything that isn't the right stigma, so it needs to be dry and smooth and fly easily; and third, you need to make your pollen-sacs hang out far into the air without interference from large petals, so you can disperse your pollen with every little wind burst. These three evolutionary adaptations are seen in many wind-pollinated plants.  So, these plants produce an copious masses of dry, easy-flying pollen from small flowers with hanging pollen sacs.  This is exactly how birches, ragweed, grasses, walnuts, mugwort, elms, pigweeds, cottonwoods, and hickories spread their pollen around.  And these plants are the ones people who suffer from pollen allergies are allergic to (see caveat below).
Flowers of a grass, showing stamens with pollen sacs hanging out and spreading their light dusty pollen into our eyes and noses (and to other grasses). (Creative Commons photo by Dave Kleinschmidt, source)
Many people think they are allergic to goldenrod, this common, yellow-flowered fall flower, but it is insect-pollinated.  Plants that are pollinated by insects have 1) something that attracts the insect to the flower, usually sweet smell and bright colors, 2) sticky pollen that gets stuck on the insect, and 3) small amounts of pollen.  You can easily tell if a plant is insect or wind-pollinated by looking at its flower and checking if any pollen flies out in the air if you shake it (this only happens in wind-pollinated flowers).  There are also plants pollinated by mammals, birds, and other small animals, as well as water, but those are more rare.  In North America, the hummingbirds are the only birds that pollinate flowers.
VividLife illustrates their POllen Allergy Awareness article with a nice, invasive thistle, pollinating insect included.  Of course, it has colorful small pink petals (in a big flower head), sticky pollen, and is not something that easily causes pollen allergies. Another blatant example of wrong imagery in the pollen allergy area (Screenshot by Botanical Accuracy, source)
 So, when your neighbor says that he can't go outside because the dandelions are flowering, or there is a newspaper article about hay fever illustrated with a pretty flower, or your oldish aunt says she is allergic to the pollen of cut flowers in a vase, they will most likely be very wrong.  (Some people are allergic to the smell of pretty flowers, but that is different.)  Still, the misconceptions are flying like airborne wind-dispersed pollen in advertising, news media, and around lunch tables.
News article about herbal remedies for hayfever in The Epoch Times, May 21-27, 2015,
illustrated with a sneezing girl in front of a flowering canola field (which is not a wind-pollinated flower),
and with dandelion fruits blowing away below. (Photo by
An other prevalent misconception shown in allergy imagery, even on the websites of medical and pharmaceutical companies based on science, is the (non-existent) connection between dandelions' fruiting puffy heads and allergies.  No, you are not allergic to flying dandelion parachute fruits and seeds, despite all those photos and ads showing exactly this connection.
Article from Mass Lunch & Allergy PC illustrated dandelion heads under the heading Pollen Allergy. Please note that the fruiting dandelion head not only has no pollen in it, it is also a fruit, not a flower. The grass would be the allergen to most hay fever suffers. (Screenshot by Botanical Accuracy, source)
In this image below, there isn't even one potential flower and no pollen source at all:

Freedom Home Care has an article called How to Keep Seasonal Allergies Under COntrol, and it is 100% illustrated with a no-pollen part of an insect-pollinated plant - Dandelion fruiting heads, again. Such misuse of images just creates confusion and makes the public afraid of real nature. (Screenshot by Botanical Accuracy, source)  

 So, why does these image mistakes matter?  It is just a picture, right?  Well, they matter a lot.  The public reads the information and associates the allergies with the images that are used to illustrate them.  Allergies means medical problems (bad stuff). We start to think allergies when we see canola fields, blowing wishes with dandelion heads, and pretty flowers.  It is 'guilty by association' and just more of the fear of nature that is spread around in media.  Fact checking should not only be for the words but also for the images that goes with the words. Some allergy doctors and pharmaceutical companies are just as guilty as photo databases in this area.

Caveat: This blog post is based on what most people are allergic to that react to pollen.  You could become allergic to nearly anything, so a small percentage of people could be allergic to tulip pollen, rose petals, and goldenrod pollen, but that is very, very rare.  When testing for allergies, it is the wind-pollinated plants that count.

Links for more information:
American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology: Pollen Allergy: Be aware that this webpage has some overly simplistic descriptions about the biology and biodiversity of plants.  For example: "Pollen is very fine powder that comes from trees, grasses, flowers and weeds." and "When a plant begins to flower, its pollen goes into the air."  They need a biologist fact checker.  No need to make things so simple fo the public that is becomes wrong.

Many thanks to KS for medical allergy testing information.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

New York State goes after mislabeled herbal supplements

Big news in the herbal supplement world today: Four large US companies are told to stop selling mislabeled herbal supplements after DNA barcoding analysis of herbal ingredients. More below...

"New York Attorney General Targets Supplements at Major Retailers",
front page news on The New York Times, Feb 3, 2015
(screenshot from's homepage by
New York Attorney General has told four major US retail firms that sells herbal supplements to remove these from their shelves or they will face legal action.  This after the AG office tested herbal supplements bought at GNC, Target, Walgreens and Walmart and found that many of the sold products did not contain what they were sold as, and in some cases, contained undisclosed 'fillers' that could cause severe allergies (such as wheat and beans, etc.).  Here is the story in The New York Times this morning, and the associated article on the scientific findings. Fascinating reading, including the lack of garlic in garlic supplements, and the addition of pine shoots, asparagus, and a multitude of other plant species.
"What's in Those Supplements?", in The New York Times, Feb 3, 2015
(screenshot from by

"The authorities said they had run tests on popular store brands of herbal supplements at the retailers — Walmart, Walgreens, Target and GNC — which showed that roughly four out of five of the products contained none of the herbs listed on their labels. In many cases, the authorities said, the supplements contained little more than cheap fillers like rice and house plants, or substances that could be hazardous to people with food allergies. " (source)
It is about time.  Most people are probably unaware that the quality control of herbal supplements are in the hands of the suppliers, and FDA that oversees this market has not had the legal and financial tools to follow up on potentially fraudulent cases. Scientists have been testing herbal supplements, sushi fish, and herbal teas, etc., for quite some time and often found that labels did not match the content when it comes to species.  Often expensive ingredients were missing and replaced with cheaper ones.  But these scientists could not take action against the companies that inadvertently or on purpose changed their product and sold the wrong ingredients.  But now New York State's Attorney General took action. Hopefully this will start to clean up the herbal industry and help the suppliers that use quality-control, efficacy, and consumer safety as their main goals.

Adulteration, the introduction of, or replacement with, ingredients that are not listed on the label, is a serious issue, and can be caused by poor quality control at the source of the plant material (mislabeled or misidentified plants, etc.), and/or by on-purpose replacement of one ingredient with another without telling the consumer (often for economical reasons).  This is of course both fraudulent and dangerous, since many people have allergies and need to know exactly what they add to their diet.  Additionally, selling the wrong thing is a giant consumer fraud.

But, keep in mind, medicinal herbal science is really based on active ingredients, and these are often particular chemical compounds.  The main issues are if these sold herbal supplements contain both the correct species (the source and origin of the chemical compounds) and the active ingredients from those plants.  Not enough research is done on many of the chemicals in plants and their efficacy, but plants in general are powerful natural chemical factories that produce both compounds that can both help your body and kill you.  That is why it is important to know both the origin of the materials in the supplements and the concentration of active ingredients.

The method used in the analysis of these supplements is DNA barcoding.  It only works for supplements that still contain DNA from the original plant material, so for example bark, seeds, leaves, fruits, even in dried form.  It doesn't work after you have extracted only specific chemicals from a plant.  But many supplements are simply dried plant powder in capsules.  DNA barcoding means that you sequence one of several small pieces of the DNA of a plant and compare it to a big database that contains most plant species used in herbal medicine.  This database is growing each day as more and more sequences are added and can be analyzed.  Similarly, if you know the DNA barcode of a species you are looking for, you can test and see if your supplement contains this species. DNA barcoding is not a method without some problems, but used scientifically it is the best method around to identify pulverized or dried plant materials to species.  It is also used to identify unknown woods, meats, caviar, pathogenic fungi, and many other materials and organisms.
The result of this DNA testing by the AG office is not a test of the value and efficacy of herbal medicine in general or for any specific herbal species. The focus here is how much adulteration of ingredients that is going on in the mass-production of herbal supplements, so it is really a test of the self-regulation of the herbal industry. The AG office of New York State is going after commercial fraud, not the scientific value of herbal medicine, which is a very different topic and maybe something for another blogpost.

Some more reading for those of you that want to learn more about this topic:

American Botanical Council's Botanical Adulterants Program

"DNA barcoding detects contamination and substitution in North American herbal products", article by Newmaster et al., in BMC medicine, 2013 (see review and critique from ABC here)

Smithsonian research with DNA barcoding is making seafood substitution easier to catch, Smithsonian Science, 2011

'International Regulation Curbs Illegal Trade of Caviar', press release from American Museum of Natural History showing the decline of illegal caviar after DNA testing was put in place, 2012

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Kissing under the mistletoe, or is it holly?

Kissed someone recently under a mistletoe?  Did you check, maybe it was holly?

The tradition of hanging a little bouquet of mistletoe in the ceiling or door frame and being allowed to kiss whoever happens to stand under it is an old tradition, and a popular subject of movies, comics, postcards, and general holiday fare in both Europe and North America.  We are currently in what The New York Times calles the "hemiparasite season" in their recent article on mistletoes.  No other time of the year provides so much attention to these green mistletoe plants that live on trees, and are often common in Christmas decorations. Another traditional Christmas plant is the holly, a shrub that has spiny, dark-green glossy leaves and (usually) red berries.  The two are often featured together.
Old European Christmas card showing mistletoe (Viscum album) with white berries
and holly (Ilex aquifolium) with red berries.
Mistletoes only grow as half-parasites on trees, usually high up in the canopy, and stay green year round.  They are easiest to spot in the winter. 
Mistletoes (Viscum album) growing on deciduous trees in Switzerland.
Photo © by Jason R Grant, used with permission.  

Mistletoes (Viscum album) plant from Switzerland.
Photo © by Jason R Grant, used with permission.
And here comes holly:
Holly (Ilex aquifolium) from Switzerland.
Photo © by Jason R Grant, used with permission.
Unfortunately, the increasing plant blindness and under-education in botanical subjects we see in media and among the general public worldwide is spreading also into Christmas botany, and a few cases of 'kissing under the holly' have showed up. Some examples:
Sweater "Kiss me under the mistletoe" showing holly, not mistletoe. 
For sale on etsy, see link.  Photo © owltheshirtsyouneed on etsy (fair use).

Greeting card "Get under the mistletoe" showing holly, not mistletoe. 
For sale on etsy, see link.  Photo © TwistedOakGreetings on etsy (fair use).
There are some more examples here, and here, and here.

The two plants are nearly impossible to mistake for each other, unless you think each green thing is a green thing and nothing more.  Here is a simple table for those of you that want to dig into the separating characters. Note that this table are for the most common and traditionally used species of mistletoes and hollies, and that there are other wild species and cultivars with different berry colors.

Mistletoe (Viscum album, etc.)
Holly (Ilex aquifolium, etc.)
Small, flat or slightly twisted and spoon-shaped, with smooth edges
Very spiny edges, thick and glossy green, wavy (hurts when you touch them)
Green, easily seen between the leaves
Usually brownish, usually covered by the spiny leaves
White, nearly translucent
As a partial parasite on trees, has a sucker root into a tree branch
As a shrub or small tree, has its own roots in the ground

The user FireFiriel on DeviantArt has clarified it once and for all with a nice drawing.

(This post was inspired and helped by information from reader IT in Sweden - many thanks!)

Friday, December 5, 2014

White lichens, green mosses, and Swedish Christmas...

It is Swedish culture time!

During the four weeks before Christmas, many Swedes light four advent candles, one at a time for four Sundays before Christmas Day. Traditionally the boxy advent candle holder are filled with a puffy white lichen from the Swedish forests. These days, more and more people switch to less fire prone materials in their candleholders, but the tradition still exist, and the lichens are for sale in regular supermarket and garden centers during the fall.
Swedish advent candles. Image source: Photoakuten.
Unfortunately, one of the old-fashioned names for these lichens are 'white moss' ('vitmossa'), which is also the correct common name for the very common peat mosses in Sweden. The correct name for the most commonly used lichen for advent is 'fönsterlav' (= window lichen) or 'renlav' (=reindeer lichen) in Swedish. This leads to a lot of confusion and errors, but also a lot of education opportunities in many Swedish stores and homes at this time of the year. 

In her fantastic and already classic video, Mirja Hagström explains the difference between a peat moss (Sphagnum) and a lichen (Cladonia, known as cup lichens and reindeer lichens), and what 'vitmossa' really is. It is in Swedish, but with somewhat Swenglish subtitles. Enjoy!

Of course it is not only Swedes that are confused about mosses and lichens, but also Americans.  Remember this older post from this blog? Reindeer moss is a lichen, not a moss

Calling lichens mosses is about as farfetched as calling a sea star an octopus.  The two groups are not at all that closely related.  Mosses is a group on the green land plant tree of life.  Lichens are fungi that live in symbiosis with algae. Of course in the old times lichens were often called 'moss', but to use that name today would just be confusing since we know better and have better, more correct names for lichens.  There is no need to perpetuate or introduce extra confusion in botanical words.

Some stores have started to use both names (vitmossa/fönsterlav) on their packaging, but then they still accept the name vitmossa for this lichen.  It would have been better to call it 'fönsterlav (formely known as vitmossa)'.  Some stores hav also started to sell any green moss under the name 'grönmossa' (=green moss), which is about as specific as saying 'red flowers' on a package.  All mosses are green when alive, even 'white moss', i.e. peatmosses, even if they can also have red, brown and yellow tones.

For examples of Swedish advent products with both mosses and lichens, see:


This blog just passed 100,000 page views yesterday. Thanks everybody for visiting!

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Why does the medicinal plant Astragalus membranaceus need to change its name?

One of the commonly used herbal medicines in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and other herbal pharmacopeias is the Chinese milk vetch, also called Radix Astragali, huang qi in Mandarin, or 黄芪 or 黄耆 in Chinese characters). Be aware though, that the name 'milk vetch' is used for many different species around the world, and some of them toxic. In the United States, the root of huang qi is widely sold as a dietary supplement ingredient, with the name astragalus established as the “standard common name” according to the rules by the US Food and Drug Administration, and therefore required on labels of such products sold in the USA. 
Huang qi is a species that has long been known scientifically as Astragalus membranaceus, a species that was described by Alexander von Bunge in 1868. Von Bunge was a German botanist that took part in several expeditions to Siberia, Mongolia, the Altai Mountains, and Central Asia's steppes in the mid-1800s.
Photo of astragalus / huang qi roots.
©  Steven Foster (link)
Unfortunately for von Bunge and for us today, it turns out that Bunge was not first with the name Astragalus membranaceus. Over 220 years ago, in 1794, Conrad Moench wrote a book on plants cultivated in the botanical garden of Marburg, Germany. In his book Moench renamed an Egyptian milk vetch species that Carl Linnaeus had earlier described as Astragalus trimestris, to Astragalus membranaceus.

All naming of plants have to follow the laws of scientific botanical nomenclature, which are called the International Code of Nomenclature for Algae, Fungi, and Plants, often shortened to ICN or 'The Code'. According to the rules of the Code you can't rename already described species on a whim, like Moench did. So Moench's name Astragalus membranaceus was properly described, but superfluous, i.e., it is an extra name that should not be used.
Photo of astragalus / huang qi.
©  Steven Foster (link)
Another rule in the Code is that when you describe a new species, you can't use a genus and species name combination that has already been used for another species. If you do, you create something called a homonym, a name that in reality applies to two different species. When you have two homonyms, the oldest name that was validly published according to all rules of the Code has priority (it wins!) and the younger name has to be put in disuse and replaced with another species name for the younger species. The younger homonym name then becomes an illegitimate name, which should not be used.

But since Moench's name was validly described, the name for the species von Bunge discovered in Asia could not be the same as Moench's species name (Astragalus membranaceus). It is too bad this situation was not realized until relatively recently. By now, there has been 160 years of published books and reports using von Bunge's species name, Astragalus membranaceus, for the Asian medicinal milk vetch. But, the nomenclature rules have to be followed or the naming of millions of species on Earth would turn into a chaotic mess. There is a possibility to get exceptions from the rules, but such exceptions have to be formally proposed and then voted on by a large botanical community of scientists that only meet at the International Botanical Congress every 4 years.
The five taxonomic groups relevant for 'huang qi' nomenclature.
Geographic information is approximate.
So, von Bunge's species from Asia, the medicinal Chinese milk vetch, needed a new name. Botanists went through the literature to see if other earlier botanists had maybe described other new species based on plants that were now considered to be part of Bunge's species. And yes indeed, there were several names available for plants that sometimes had been considered separate from Astragalus membranaceus, but now were included, so the oldest of those species names can be used.

The problem was that the botanists could not agree on how to divide up the plants into different species. In taxonomy we often talk about 'lumpers' (botanists that like to have large, widespread and morphologically variable species) and 'splitters' (who like many small species, often from small geographical areas and more uniform characteristics).

The current world expert on this group of milk vetches is Dr. Xiangyun Zhu from Institute of Botany in Beijing in China, who has graciously helped us understand this complicated issue. After detailed morphological analyses, Dr. Zhu showed that the species Astragalus penduliflorus from Europe, is actually the same species as the medicinal plant known as Astragalus membranaceus in East Asia (see his paper in Nordic Journal of Botany 23: 283-294 (2005). When biologists learn more about species, sometimes their names change to reflect our new understanding of their relationships and properties. It might be inconvenient at times, but is part of scientific progress.

So, the current treatment is that several milk vetch species are being merged into one single species. Several names are available. Astragalus penduliflorus was described first, by the famous naturalist Lamarck in 1779. Therefore it is clear that Astragalus penduliflorus then is the oldest name and the one that now should be used for huang qi. Not all botanists might agree with this, but this is the best and most science-based naming so far.

The current species names and distribution of 'huang qi' and other varieties in its species (note all are included).
Geographic information is approximate.
Within a species you can also have subspecies, varieties, and forms. Botanists frequently discuss such fine-tuning of taxonomy and might have arguments over it. Sometimes the decisions can have economic and ethnobotanical implications. For example, if only one subspecies contains an active compound, then it is important that you use the right subspecies and not just any plant from the whole species.
In the case of the medicinal Chinese milk vetch, the species previously known as Astragalus membranaceus now has the new taxonomic name Astragalus penduliflorus ssp. mongholicus var. dahuricus.

This means that huang qi belongs to the subspecies mongholicus, and within that subspecies to the variety dahuricus. So only the species name "Astragalus penduliflorus" will not guarantee you to get the traditionally used huang qi. Make sure that the label (or content) is more specific than just the species name since this is such a geographically widespread and morphologically (and most likely chemically as well) variable species. 

Another name that has been used for the Asian Astragalus membranaceus is Astragalus propinquus.  It is the name that is currently listed in The Plant List from Kew Gardens, which is based on the LegumeWeb database.  Unfortunately, those have outdated information and need to be updated.  Especially for legumes (Fabaceae), be aware that The Plant List is not properly updated (yet).
Astragalus propinquus is now also a synonym of Astragalus penduliflorus ssp. mongholicus var. dahuricus.

Astragalus (huang qi) herbal supplement sold by GNC in the US.  Source: GNC.

In Chinese medicine, the criteria for appropriate medicinal plant material might be even more strict, such as that only one particular region would be the most wanted producer of a medicinal plant. Such generally accepted regions or places for high-quality material of each medicinal plant are called ‘Daodi’ in Chinese (see review article on this by Zhao et al., 2012, cited below). The plant materials produced in a 'Daodi' place is generally acknowledged to be the most bioactive and of the best quality. So the price of a ‘Daodi’ medicinal plant is usually higher than the same plant species produced in other areas. For huang qi, the ‘Daodi’ plants are the ones produced in the Shanxi Province of China. The materials from other non-‘Daodi’ provinces can be sold, but would not be as accepted or wanted by the customers.

Cultivation of astragalus / huang qi.
©  Steven Foster (link)
What I have described above is called botanical nomenclature, the naming of plants and the rules that guide their scientific names. These rules are active worldwide in botany and mycology and know no political borders. Slightly separate from nomenclature is the research on circumscribing a species. That means that you do research on which individuals belong to one species and not another, or if a species might be one, two, or three separate species. If you lump two species together and consider them one single species, then you also have to follow the rule of priority. The oldest species name in your lumped species will become the species name for the new, larger species, and the younger name will become a synonym, a name that shouldn't be used.

The current scientific name for Astragalus membranaceus
(as described by Bunge and native to Asia) is:

Astragalus penduliflorus ssp. mongholicus var. dahuricus
Astragalus penduliflorus var. dahuricus
(two name options for the same variety)  

[Blogpost written by Lena Struwe and Shen-hao (Shawn) Yao]

Many thanks to Xiangyun Zhu and Steven Foster, who both provided excellent taxonomic and ethnobotanical insights and photographs for this article.

References and more suggested reading:

Foster, S.  1998. Astragalus: A Superior Herb. Herbs for Health, Sep/Oct 1998: 40-41.

Foster, S.
2004. The Secret Garden: Important Chinese Herbs in American Horticulture: A Photo Essay. HerbalGram. 2004; 64:44-51 (link)

Zhao,  Z., P. Guo, & E. Brand. 2012. The formation of daodi medicinal materials. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 140: 476-481.

Zhu, X-Y. 2005. Revision of the Astragalus penduliflorus complex (Leguminosae - Papilionoidae). Nord. J. Bot. 23: 283-294.