Friday, July 11, 2014

Artemisia, a spelling misery

The large genus Artemisia in the sunflower family (Asteraceae) contains some very potent plants and is well-known around the world for a variety of good and bad reasons.   Common English names include sagebrush, wormwood, and mugwort.

For people allergic to pollen, the weedy mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) is probably a large cause of their respiratory problems in early fall.  For people suffering from malaria, the old Chinese herbal derived from the species Artemisia annua has been developed into a highly efficient anti-malarial medicine.  Then there is Artemisia absinthium, the source of the green-colored alcoholic liquid absinthe of early 20th century fame.  And there is more.  Tarragon, the culinary herb, is a sterile, vegetatively propagated  Artemisia species. There are hundreds of species of Artemisia in the world.

Artemisia absinthium, the plant that is included in absinthe.  Species in this genus have finely divided leaves that often are silvery, and wind-pollinated flowers that are clustered in small, hanging heads.
Image source: Köhler's Medizinal-Pflanzen, public domain, via Wikipedia.

Artemisia is named after the Ancient Greek goddess Artemis, and her name is also used as a source of many names and places outside of botany (see Wikipedia list). She was the deity associated with hunting, childbirth, and wild places. A greek botanist and doctor, Artemisia II of Caria, was named after Artemis, and the name of the genus might have been in her honor, especially since these plants are highly medicinal and have been used as herbals since ancient times.

Surprisingly, in a travel article in The New York Times this weekend about 'absinthe trails' on the border between Switzerland and France, the name of the genus was given as Artemesia, not Artemisia.
"In particular, its namesake ingredient, grand wormwood — Artemesia absinthum in Latin, and simply called “absinthe” in French — might have been found all over Europe, but the type of wormwood that grew in the Val-de-Travers and nearby Franche-Comté was said to be vastly superior."  (source)
Yes, The New York Times also didn't italicize the scientific name, but they apparently never do.  But, for a newspaper that pride themselves on accuracy and correct facts and grammar, scientific names do not seem to get spell-checked a lot.  On May 30, 2014, they published an article on dandelions and it included this sentence:

"The dandelion (Taraxacum officianale) arrived with the first Europeans and can now be found throughout North America. "   (source)

The correct name is Taraxacum officinale, for this most ubiquitous of our lawn weeds. No idea how that extra 'a' got in there...  For biology, this is as much of a mistake as misspelling Obama or Boehner in political writing. For more on formatting and use of scientific names, take a look at this blogpost.

Despite Artemisia being widely used and present, the genus name is often misspelled.  The spelling as Artemesia is common (example 1, example 2), and often Artemisia herbals are sold under 'Artemesia' even if the bottle label correctly says 'Artemisia'.  Is there something in the sound of this name that make us misspell this name inadvertently?

"Magic Seed 100 Mugwort Seeds Artemesia" for sale on by Magic Seed company.
Screenshot by
 To conclude, here are seeds of mugwort (as 'Artemesia Vulgaris') for sale on It should be Artemisia vulgaris.   The ad also states "Easy to grow, grows like crazy once established'.  Yes, indeed. It is a common, noxious weed and regulated in some states, and a not something you want to have in your vegetable garden.  If you need some mugwort, you will probably find it really easily anyway, without having to grow it from seed.

(It should be noted that the spelling 'Artemesia' is used for a music band, as a family or given name, and for some buildings. But it isn't used for the plant. )

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

RQ: Use of scientific names as English words

READER QUESTION: If an article lists a series of plants, such as "osmundas, polystichums, and polypodies," should the names be capitalized and italicized?

Osmunda regalis, known as royal fern in English.
(Image from T. Moore, The ferns of Great Britain
and Ireland
, 1856, public domain, via Wikipedia.)
Answer: No. In this case the three fern genera Osmunda, Polystichum, and Polypodium are used as English words, and function as common names, so the example give above is fine.

You could capitalize the names (as 'Osmundas'), but you don't have to, and I think it is better if common names are generally not capitalized. We don't capitalize words like cat, dog, human, apple, and such common names. And if these scientific genus names are used as English common names, then they should not be in italics either. There are many examples where scientific genus names of plants are used in English, for example geranium, calla, petunia...

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The species names of citrus - a sweet, sour, and sticky mess

Everybody knows the great and tasty citrus fruits - lemon, lime, orange, grapefruit, tangerine, and clementine, and maybe even the more rare bergamot, pomelo, tangelo, kumquat, yuzu, and tangelo.

Various slices of citrus fruits.  (Image from USDA, public domain.)
Since ancient times these plants have been cultivated, domesticated, and used by humans, and hybridization (on purpose or accidental) have created new hybrids. Citrus plants really do like to hybridize and since many of these hybridization and domestication events happened in the past it has been really hard to figure out these questions:
1) What is a species? (biological boundaries and evolution)
2) What is a hybrid? (= cross between two species, biology, evolution, and genetics)
3) What are the parent species of a hybrid? (genetics)
4) What is the correct scientific name for a species or a hybrid? (scientific nomenclature)

With the help of Dr. David Mabberley, an expert on the genus Citrus, I tried to sort this out since so many scientific names for citrus used on beauty and body products are inconsistent and sometimes flat out wrong and need to be updated. Please note that this is a work in progress for science, and that more research is needed to clarify relationships further.  Citrus relationships are a very messy business, indeed. So, here is the most up-to-date information, as far as I can discern.

This is a summary picture of the current hypotheses of the relationships of the most common species and hybrids of Citrus:

Origins and scientific names for the most commonly cultivated citrus fruits. 
Based on data from D.J. Mabberley's publications.

In botanical taxonomy a species (*) can only have one current and unique scientific name.  Other names are synonyms and their use should be phased out, and only be listed as synonyms in publications. This is to ease the communication and understanding in botany, horticulture, ethnobotany, and agriculture. We should all know what we talk about and we should talk about the same thing when we use a species name, right?
(* except for some fungi, but the mycologists are sorting that out now too, slowly. )

Hybrids either get their parents' names with an 'x' in between parent names (mother listed first), or a brand new species epithet preceded by a 'x'.  So, in the figure above, the name for orange can be listed as Citrus maxima x Citrus reticulata, or Citrus x aurantium.  You often see the name Citrus sinensis or Citrus x sinensis for oranges, but those are synonym names that should not be used anymore.

The group Citrus x aurantium includes a large array of different cultivars and varieties, such as orange, tangor, grapefruit, bitter orange, clementine and tangelo.  This is because the initial hybrids where then back-crossed to different parents, so Citrus x aurantium is really a large hybrid complex. 

So, what are then the most up to date names for cultivated and commercial citrus fruits? Here they are:

Common name
Current scientific name
Common inaccurate botanical and ingredient names
Citrus × limon
Citrus aurantium var. bergamia, Citrus bergamia
bitter orange
Citrus × aurantium
Citrus amara, Citrus aurantium ssp. amara, Citrus iyo
Citrus reticulata
Citrus x reticulata
Citrus medica
Citrus medica var. acida
Citrus × aurantium
Citrus clementina
Citrus × aurantium
Citrus paradisi, Citrus × paradisi
kaffir lime (now called makrut lime)
Citrus hystrix

Citrus japonica

Citrus × limon
Citrus limon, Citrus medica var. limon
Citrus × aurantiifolia
Citrus aurantifolia
makrut lime
Citrus hystrix

Citrus reticulata
Citrus x reticulata
Citrus × aurantium
Citrus aurantium, Citrus aurantium var. sinensis, Citrus sinensis, Citrus × sinensis
Citrus maxima
Citrus grandis
Citrus reticulata
Citrus unshiu
Tahiti lime (seedless)
Citrus x latifolia

Citrus × aurantium
Citrus tangelo
Citrus reticulata
Citrus x reticulata,  Citrus × tangerina
Citrus × aurantium
Citrus nobilis, Citrus x nobilis
Citrus × junos
Citrus junos

Many of the commercial, non-commercial, government or non-profit databases and publications do not use these updated names.  They are often lagging behind and changing names take time.

Want to read more about the delicious history and taxonomy of citrus plants?  Try these scientific papers if you want something more substantial than Wikipedia
    Mabberley, D. J. 1997. A classification for edible Citrus (Rutaceae). Telopea 7: 167-172.
    Mabberley, D. J. 2004. Citrus(Rutaceae): A review of recent advances in etymology, systematics, and medical applications. Blumea 49: 481-498 
     Zhang, D. & D. J. Mabberley.  Citrus in Flora of China. [Lots of interesting information here!]
    Li, X., R. Xie, Z. Lu, & Z. Zhou. 2010. The origin of cultivated Citrus as inferred from internal transcribed spacer and chloroplast DNA sequence and Amplified Fragment Length Polymorphism fingerprints. Journal of the American Society for Horticultural Science 135: 341-350. [Note - some of their results do not agree with the parent hypotheses presented above.]
    (Many thanks to Dr. David J. Mabberley for expert help and information for this post.)

    Thursday, March 27, 2014

    New logo for botanical detectives...

    Botanical Accuracy has gotten a new custom-made logo designed by Clayton Leadbetter.  Love it! Thanks, Clayton!

    Flowering ferns and other mythical greens

    The Philadelphia Flower Show is a paradise for winter-weary gardeners.  It can also be great fodder for botanical accuracy blog posts, but I have to say that this year's show was a lot better than usual. It was a delight to be there in this seemingly perpetual winter.  As for botanical inaccuracies, there was only one that stared you in the face, label and all.
    "Flowering Ferns", label seen at Philadelphia Flower Show.
    Photo ©
    This label is from a Dutch company's booth where they were briskly selling "Flowering ferns".  How can that be? Isn't that like unicorns or flying horses? A combination of features that has never evolved, in horses, or in ferns.

    So what is wrong with flowering ferns, apart from the fact that they don't exist?  On the tree of life of plants, ferns (and horsetails) are located above the mosses and liverworts at the base, and below the conifers (spruces, pines, etc.) and flowering plants.  Conifers and flowering plans have seeds, but ferns, lycopods, and mosses have spores spread from sporangia, never seeds. Flowers and fruits only occur in angiosperms (flowering plants), a group that evolved a lot later than ferns. So what is in this bag for sale in this booth? A fern or a flowering plant?

    "Flowering Ferns" packet, seen at Philadelphia Flower Show.
    Photo ©
    It turns out to be a flowering plant with fern-like leaves. The species is Incarvillea delavayi. It is a member of the family of Bignoniaceae (bignons), together with trumpet creeper (Campsis), jacaranda (Jacaranda), and African tulip tree (Spathodea).  Common names for this species are hardy gloxinia, incarvillea, garden gloxinia, and Delavays trumpet flower.  To add the inaccurate name 'flowering ferns', just add confusion. 

    Wednesday, February 26, 2014

    Pollen allergy? Not from thistles

    This ad is marketing the allergy medicine Singulair (Merck) and it is titled 'go nose to nose with allergies'.  And right next to the nose is a very spiny, evil-looking thistle head with an abundance of red, small tubular flowers ready to release their pollen.

    The problem is that people are mostly allergic to wind-pollinated plants that release dust clouds of dry pollen grains that fly through the air freely and land in our noses, eyes, and mouths.  The non-wind pollinated plants, such as thistles, get visited by insects that carry the pollen from flower to flower.  For the pollen to be a carried by insects, the pollen needs to be sticky so it stays on the animal.  And sticky pollen doesn't fly through the air freely and enters your nose as dust.  So, thistles are not common allergy plants at all.

    The most common allergy-inducing plants are wind-pollinated grasses, some weeds (which is a group of a variety of unrelated species), and trees in the plant families containing oaks, birches, and other wind-pollinated trees.  But too often the insect-flowering plants that flower at the same time as the wind-pollinated allergens get the blame, as in this case.

    I also think the Singulair marketers rather have a spiny evil-looking weed like the thistle in the ad, than a fragile grass with rather small, obscure flowers. But the use of the thistle spreads misinformation. People might start to pull up goldenrods, thistles, and clover because they think they cause pollen allergies, which is not true at all. If I was working at Merck, the producer of Singulair, I would be very embarrassed over this mistake.  

    Tuesday, February 11, 2014

    Are there cattails among the nymphs in the waterlilies?

    Sometimes you run into botanical mistakes that just makes no sense.  Mistakes that are so strange, that you wonder not just want the author was thinking, but really, HOW did they get this wrong...  A reader of this blog (RO) sent me this example of such a preposterous mistake:

    On Virginia Tech's online Weed Identification Guide, when you search for cattails, you find this:

    Screenshot from Virginia Tech Weed Identification guide by
    A nice page with a species description, but... the genus is wrong.  Cattail belongs to Typha (in the family Typhaceae, they have their own little family).  Here is a typical cattail in fruit:
    Typha latifolia_10
    A pair of cattail 'cigars' which contain the developing fruits.
    Photo by Amadej Trnkoczy on Flickr, Creative Commons. 

    Instead of Typha, the listed genus name is Nympha, which not only is a non-existent genus name, but probably was meant to be Nymphaea, the waterlily genus.  Sure, water lilies often grow very close to cattails in the edges of lakes or ditches, but they are completely different plants. Compare here:
    waterlily banner
    A great pair of Nymphaea, water lilies. Photo by Vilseskogen on Flickr, Creative Commons.

    Nymphaea is of course named after the Greek nymphs, while Typha also comes from a greek word 'typhos', which is the ancient name for this plant.  Apparently cattails have long been associated with mythological creatures such as serpents and dragons.

    The same information and mistake is showing up in University of Missouri's Weed ID iphone app, and they must have some kind of collaboration with the originators of Virginia Tech's Weed data.

    My main issue here is that universities that put out online (or printed) botanical tools for the general public need to get at least the basic science correct.  People use these tools, which is great, but they will (and should) assume that the information is accurate, especially if if it is provided by a research and teaching university.

    (Thanks to RO for sending me the link to the botanically inaccurate page.)

    Friday, January 31, 2014

    Teasels tousled with thistles

    Thistles are such familiar plants to most of us, these spiky, thorny, sharp-leaved plants with fuzzy purple or pink, or less commonly yellow, flower heads.  We love them and hate them, as they are both beloved and tasty plants (artichoke, the Scottish symbol) and less liked since they can be weedy and sometimes invasive.  They get around with their little fruits attached to a pappus-umbrella of hairs that act like a parachute for long-distance dispersal.  Thistles are well-known and common in popular media and literature.
    'Thistle clipart' search on Google yields this result - these are all thistles.
    Screenshot by
    Most of the plantswe call thistles belong to Asteraceae (the sunflower family) and form their own group (a tribe called Cardueae (=older name) or Cynareae).  In this group you have genera and species such as Arctium (burdock), Carduus, Carthamus (safflower), Centaurea (knapweeds, corn flower, star thistle), Cirsium, Cynara (artichoke, cardoon), Echinops (Globe thistle), Onopordum, and Silybium (milk thistle).
    A typical thistle flower looks like this:

    Thistle, probably Cirsium
    Photo from United Kingdom, by John Cooke on Flickr (Creative Commons).

    The problem is the teasels (Dipsacus).  They are in the family Dipsacaceae, not too far away from Asteraceae's thistles, but certainly not true thistles, but they look a bit like them and get confused with them a lot.  Teasels also have large heads of small flowers and are plants that look ferocious with spines.  The teasel itself got its name from that the flower heads were used to tease out the wool before spinning (carding). Several teasels are invasive in the United States and you often see them along highways in  disturbed ditches and on road banks. Their flowering heads dry beautifully into gorgeous botanical stalks for flower arrangements.
    A typical teasel look like this:
    Teasel in Bloom
    Teasel, Dipsacus.
    Photo by Bev Currie on Flickr (Creative Commons).

    So, can you tell teasels and thistles apart? Thistles have many (involucral) bracts below the flower head that form a cup below the flowers.  In teasels, there are just a few long bracts that stick out below the flower head.  The teasels have lots of sharp parts in the actual flower head, so the flower head looks like a spiny ball the whole season. In thistles, the bracts below the flower stays, but there are no persistent spiny parts inside among the flowers themselves.  The fruits, which are little nut-like, single-seeded achenes have a feathery pappus for wind-dispersal in thistles, but are naked in teasels.  Good teasel photos are available on

    As usual for some of these misunderstandings and misapplications, the stock photo market is abundant with incorrectly identified plants.  There seems to be no taxonomic quality control of what photos actually show and what they are labeled on places like iStockphoto, Colourbox, and Getty Images.  For plants this is especially disturbing since commercial companies and media buy representative photos of that they think are thistles, poppies, and chamomile, and then use them in good faith. Unfortunately, this is a major reason why botanical inaccuracies are propagated and also the media companies paid for something they didn't got.  (The problems with chamomile images are especially abundant, but that is for a later post.) 

    Here are some teasels that are labeled as thistles on stock photos for sale: 

    Teasels presented as thistles on gettyimages (link).
    Screenshot by

    More teasels listed as 'thistle plant', this time on Colourbox (link).
    Screenshot by
    Dried flowering heads sold as 'dried thistle' by Country Creations (link).
    Screenshot by

    Saturday, January 25, 2014

    Wanted: italics and correct capitalization

    As a botanists and scientists I am sure most of us have pet peeves on how scientific information is handled in everyday life.  One of mine is the writing of scientific names for species, the simple Genus + Species epithet that is unique to every species and help us keep order among information and knowledge.  An example of a scientific name is Acer rubrum, red maple.

    There really are very simple rules to follow in how to format these names, and none of these rules are really optional, especially not if you want to promote your company or work as scientific, correct, and professional. Here are the three simple rules:
    • Italizice species names
    • The Genus name is capitalized in the beginning.
    • The species epithet is never capitalized.
     The capitalization of the first letter of a Genus name shows that it is a genus.

    For example: Acer, Rudbeckia, and Taraxacum.

    The species epithet, the one-word addition  to the genus name that creates the species name, should never be capitalized.  In the past, sometimes words that originated from place names and people's names were capitalized, but that is no longer done. There is a great website called Curious Taxonomy that lists species named after all kinds of people, such as politicians, sports figures, actors, fictional and mythical characters, things and places around the world. 

    Examples of correct formatting would be:
    americanum, smithii, batesii, and yoda - after America, Smith, Bates, and Yoda. 

    The italicization shows that they are scientific names, and not cultivar names or common names or other informal names. So for a cultivar of a species you would see names like this: Clematis alpina 'Ruby', where the cultivar name is not italicized and in quotes (read more here on cultivar names). To promote the understanding of the biodiversity of the world it is a great idea to have italicized names in concurrence with cultivars, common names and other information.  Italicized names are not harder to read, and they are unique, as opposed to common names, and can tell you a lot about the species.

    Now, are these three rules followed outside the scientific world?  No, not all the time.  It is very common to see either no capitalization of genus names or capitalization of species epithets, and the lack of italicized species names are abundant. Here are some examples:
    "Thuja Occidentalis" - at least the species name is in italics,
    but occidentalis should have all been lower case letters. Homeopathic herbal medicine sold by TagAway.
    (Note, it is homeopathic so it doesn't work, unless it is a placebo effect, link to more information.)

    One of the worst offenders I have seen so far is LUSH, a company that creates wonderful soaps and other body products from natural ingredients.  Unfortunately their botanical science does not have the same quality.  They not only ignore all italicization of all scientific names in their online ingredient finder and in their catalogs, they also have started to capitalize some species epithets that never were capitalized even before (see 'Matricaria Chamomilla' and 'Pimenta Acris' below).  The other botanical and biological information on the LUSH website are also poor, but that will have to wait for other blog posts.
    LUSH website showing 'Chamomile Blue Oil' with wrongly formatted scientific name. Screenshot by (cc) (link).
    'Pimenta Acris' on the LUSH website, also wrongly formatted. This particular plant and website
    has been featured on Botanical Accuracy earlier due to taxonomic confusion.
    Screenshot by (cc) (link)
    When it comes to labels in botanical gardens, it might have been hard in the past to make labels with italicized names, but that is changing with modern tools and machines.  Many public garden labels have scientific names non-italicized or in all CAPS, but I hope that is going to change with new labeling methods.
    Plant label from University of Oxford's Botanical garden, showing all capitalized scientific name and no italics. 
    © Oxford University, fair use. (link)
    Companies and others that print their labels on paper for catalogs, seed packets, and directly printed labels have less of an excuse for not using italics.  Several seed companies get their formatting correct, for examples Renee's Garden (however, the scientific name that they list for feverfew is an older synonym, not the current name):

    Seed packet label from Renee's Garden for Feverfew, Tanacetum parthenium (listed as Chrysanthemum parthenium).
    (c) Renee's Garden, fair use (link)

    Scientific names might seem intimidating, but they are very useful and can also be entertaining.  For more information and explanations, see this blog post by Benjamin Lord.

    Sometimes you see family names italicized and that is not against any rules, but it is becoming less common. I never do it in my scientific writings unless a publisher for a particular journal or book insist on it, and in my experience this is mostly a custom in parts of Europe. It is not a common practice in North America.

    Monday, January 20, 2014

    Beware of the wronged coconuts

    Coconut palms are the quintessential symbol of tropical paradise. Spindly, tall trees with large feathery leaves wisp in tropical breezes on tropical beaches of white sand, under blue sky and by turquoise water.

    Beach in Hawaii with coconut palm tree.
    (cc) anda (: on Flickr.

    Up in the crown of the palm, a few coconuts are usually hanging, ready to fall down on you at any moment.  If they do, and they don't hit you, with some work you can get to the delicious inside of the coconut. (As a side note, when you consume the white parts inside, you eat or drink palm endosperm. In case you didn't know. )

    This staple food plant is spread all over the tropics, and a well-known plant in many cultures, even urban cities of today far from tropical beaches.  It is a plant that is easy to identify, delicious, and quite symbolic for us.  Therefore, it is quite strange that in popular culture so many illustrators get this plant wrong.  Really wrong. OK, as an illustrator you can simplify a lot, that is fine, but that is not the same as changing the properties of a plant and create something that doesn't exist.

    First, this is how a coconut plant looks like:

    Coconut palm, Cocos nucifera (Arecaceae)
    From Köhler's Medicinal-Pflanzen, public domain (Wikipedia)
    • Note the tall, skinny stem of even thickness, with horizontal leaf scars on it.
    • Note the big fruits (coconuts), aggregated close to the trunk at the top.
    • Note the leaves, in a rosette at the top
    • Note that each leaf is divided into tiny, tiny leaflets that are arranged like a feather along a midrib.  It it the midrib, the vein along the center, that holds together the leaf. Each leaf can be very long, up to 5 meters (15 feet) at least and all the little leaflets are loose from each other except at the midrib of the leaf.

    Here is a closeup of a coconut leaf, showing many leaflets along a midrib:

    Coconut leaves
    Coconut leaf showing many leaflets connected along the midrib.
    (cc) Azeem Azeez on Flickr.
    So, how do some of  the clipart masters and popular illustrators show coconut palms?  

    A quick Google search results in a variety of morphologies, most of them correct:
    Screenshot of Google image search 'coconut palm clipart free',
     but a few hits that look like this:

    "Palm Tree Clipart Image: Tropical Coconut Palm Tree Icon"
    Image courtesy of
    Coconut tree design
    Screenshot from, a stockphoto website showing 'palm clip-art'.
    (c), fair use.
    Screenshot of, showing clipart with 'double coconut palm tree island and sun'.
    (c) Hit Toon, fair use.

    Do you see the problems here?  Hint - stems and leaves.

    Coconut leaves are finely divided into small thin and long segments arranged along a midrib, like a feather.  But, these ones above have whole, undivided leaves, which sometimes are slightly lobed.  In fact, some of these leaves look more like banana leaves.

    The stems should be evenly thick, and they should have horizontal, evenly distributed leaf scars towards the top of the tree trunk.  These have a variety of stem patterns and shapes.

    One thing they get right, the placement of the coconuts.  But you wonder why are there nearly always three coconuts in a tree, don't you?

    So, shouldn't illustrators have the freedom to simplify, improvise, and design their own plants?  Sure.  But if you use one of these examples, then realize that the adults and kids that see these images will think that this is how a coconut palm looks like, when in reality, that is not true.  So, even if these images are fine and pretty as clip art and design pieces, they are still very botanically inaccurate.
    Screenshot of Google image search 'dog clipart free',
    Illustrators often simplify drawings of dogs, elephants and chickens too, but the characteristic features are always there, trunk, wagging tail, 4 legs, beak and feathers,. and so on.  To change the features that are characteristics for the coconut palm changes the species, it changes what you want to illustrate into an imaginary plant. It is like drawing a dog with a beak - we would complain that it no longer was a dog.  Many people don't realize that these palm drawings are incorrect, because we have lost a lot of botanical knowledge in our societies.  We all still know how a dog looks like though!