Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Fungi this and fungi that, fungi known and fungi what?

All food products have to be marked with their ingredients, but it becomes a little complicated when what is in the packet of dried mushrooms you have just bought turns out to be three unnamed porcini species. Bryn Dentinger and Laura Suz from the Jodrell Lab at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (in United Kingdom) describe how they figured this out using modern molecular evolutionary methods in a recent paper in the journal PeerJ. (Here is a link to their research paper.)

porcini mushrooms at the market
Porcini mushrooms for sale.
Photo by Kristen Taylor (Creative Commons license, link)

So, how could this happen, and how common is this? We have described a lot of species on Earth, especially among plants.  But there are some organismal groups that are large uncharted areas on our biodiversity maps where not much is known, and fungi, bacteria, and insects are among those groups.  If you are looking for a career focused on new species descriptions, I recommend those groups, and maybe also other invertebrate groups and smaller algae.  There is a lot to find out!

Dentinger and Suz explain fungal discoveries: 
"Although taxonomists regard new fungal taxa as commonplace, they are often of little apparent consequence to human society and largely go unnoticed by the public. Like all groups of organisms, our knowledge of fungal diversity is biased towards taxa of greatest concern to ourselves, such as edible fungi. For example, wild mushrooms collected and sold as food around the world generally belong to a handful of well-known taxa (e.g., truffles and chanterelles), most of which have long histories of use in European cuisine. However, even some of these well-known groups have been shown to contain underappreciated levels of diversity. "
How did the researchers figure out that the package of Chinese porcini a friend of theirs had bought in London and brought to them as a dinner item had new species in it? Porcini belong to the Boletus genus, which include some incredibly delicious species, as well as some you definitely should not eat. I assume they got curious about the brown fungal bits in the bag, and decided to check it out. They took their samples to their molecular phylogenetics lab, extracted the DNA from individual pieces, and then compared those DNA sequences with all known porcini mushrooms' DNA. It turned out that the DNA sequences were different enough to warrant the first description of three new species from China. These new porcini species were named after Chinese common words: Boletus bainiugan, Boletus meiweiniuganjun, and Boletus shiyong (link to description article here). 

Can the same thing happen when you buy a bag of dried food plants?  Yes, it could, but it is probably less likely because we know more about the plant species of the world. 

Reference: Dentinger and Suz (2014), What’s for dinner? Undescribed species of porcini in a commercial packet. PeerJ 2:e570; DOI 10.7717/peerj.570

PS. So, truth to be told, fungi are not actually plants, but fungi have historically been included in botany since they also are sessile organisms stuck in the ground on land (usually, but not always). In reality fungi are actually more close evolutionary speaking to animals than to plants.  So, mushrooms are more closely related to bacon, than to potatoes and bamboo shoots. Vegetarians might want to consider that. :)  

Thanks to our blog reader EC for sending me the link to this interesting paper. 

Monday, November 10, 2014

Mixed herbs - a trip out in the botanical unknown

Baraka Mixed Herbs. (c) BotanicalAccuracy.com
 A few days ago I found a very interesting bag of plant materials for sale in the local food market - a bag with dried plants marked MIXED herbs. It might be a herbal tea, a spice mixture, I am not sure. Looking closer I was wondering what the actual ingredients were, and looked for the ingredient label.  

Baraka Mixed Herbs. (c) BotanicalAccuracy.com
And there is was: "Ingredients: Mixed herbs".  But which ones?  Good ones, tasty ones, toxic ones, allergen ones?  There is no way to know.  The photo shows sage, ox eye daisy (presumably), and a hibiscus, plus a purple-flowered Lamiaceae.  You can find out that the dried plant parts are from Jordan, but not what species they are. Some of the parts look like Hibiscus flowers, but can you be sure?
Baraka Mixed Herbs Nutrition Facts and Ingredient List. (c) BotanicalAccuracy.com
Now, this is of course against any FDA rules when it comes to labeling of foods.  All things that are sold that we eat has to be labeled with exact ingredients and nutrition information. So, here the customers and consumers are kept in the dark... this bag can contain exactly what is says: Mixed herbs of unknown kinds.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Red berry, blue berry... cranberry, lingonberry?

In Scandinavia many forest berries are wild-harvested and then used for home canning of jams and sauces, and also sold commercially to companies to flavor drinks, juices, yogurt, desserts, jams, and so on.  Many of these are members of the Vaccinium genus in the blueberry family (Ericaceae).

lingonberry, also called cowberry, Vaccinium vitis-idaea
Public domain photo from Lindman's Bilder ur Nordens Flora
One of the most common ones is lingonberry (Vaccinium vitis-idaea), a low-growing blueberry relative with small, red, shiny, and clustered berries on short upright stalks and with leathery oblong leaves.  They look like little tiny bushes sticking out of the soil among mosses and lichens in the taiga forests. Lingonberries are a very Swedish thing, and served with classic pancakes, blood pudding (maybe not so common anymore, but served in public school when I grew up in Sweden), and traditional cheese cake. It is an incredibly well-known and common wild-foraged plant in Scandinavia.

Common names are not regulated, they are just used by people as they see fit over the world.  This species is called lingonberry in English most of Europe and North America, cowberry in parts of North America, and lowbush cranberry in Alaska.  Other names are wortleberry and mountain cranberry. Which leads to giant confusion with the cranberry species below when you only use common names.  
(European) cranberry, Vaccinium oxycoccus
Public domain photo from Lindman's Bilder ur Nordens Flora

Other Vaccinium species also has red delicious berries, and among the most well known in the Northern hemisphere are the cranberries. In Europe it is mostly the cranberry species  Vaccinium oxycoccus, and in North American cranberry the larger-fruited Vaccinium macrocarpon. Cranberries grow mostly on the surface of the peat moss in bogs. They have lonely berries on long thin stalks that are laying on the ground, and long creeping branches with small leaves.  They are not grown commercially in Scandinavia, but are cultivated in other parts of the world.  Their tart flavor means that they are often used for jelly to be served with meat, and also for cranberry juice.

Cranberries and lingonberries are very different-looking plants when you see them side by side, but despite their large morphological differences there are common mistake.   As usual the stock photo market is among the worst, and here are an abundance of cranberry photos that actually show lingonberry (the opposite is much less common, so people seem to know how lingonberry looks like, but not how cranberries do). However, if the photos are from Alaska, they might be correct if they meant the low-bush cranberry(=lingonberry/cowberry), but there is no way of knowing if they use the Alaskan meaning of cranberry, or if they made a plant identification mistake (that is why we have scientific names to keep things in order) . Here are some examples of 'cranberry' photos featuring lingonberry (Vaccinium vitis-idaea):
Herbal Extracts Plus website, showing lingonberry images on the cranberry page.
Screenshot by BotanicalAccuracy.com.

Dreamstime stock photo website, showing a cranberry image for sale, that actually shows lingonberry.
Screenshot by BotanicalAccuracy.com.
Botanic Innovations LLC website, showing a lingonberry photo on the page for Cranberry seed oil.
Screenshot by BotanicalAccuracy.com.

Seeds-Gallery website, showing a lingonberry photo on the page for American Cranberry seeds.
In this case we know what species they mean since they give the scientific name
Vaccinium macrocarpon, and that is Vaccinium vitis-idaea on the photo.
Screenshot by BotanicalAccuracy.com.

Stockphoto for sale on CanStock website, showing a lingonberry photo
marked as 'tranbär' (cranberry).
Screenshot by BotanicalAccuracy.com.
The problem is that many companies buy stock photos to illustrate websites and newsletters and commercial packaging, and that there is no taxonomic quality control nor scientific species names on the labeling of stock photos. Many companies appears to be unaware of that they are using the wrong species in their materials until someone points it out, and by then they have inadvertently provided false marketing and information by using inaccurately named images.  Here is a packaging example of cranberry herbal tea, showing lingonberries and cranberries on the box:
Caribbean Dreams Cranberry Herbal tea, showing branches of lingonberries, not cranberries, but with a cranberry bog in the background, and cranberries along the edge.
To further confuse the American public, there is also 'cranberry bush' or tree, which is a species in the unrelated genus Viburnum and have nothing do to with Vaccinium's.  But that will be a different story.

So, to summarize how to tell these species apart in a photo:

Lingonberry, cowberry, lowbush cranberry (Vaccinium vitis-idaea): short plant with upright stems in forest, leaves leathery and oblong, often slightly curled at edges, berries clustered together

Cranberry (several species of Vaccinium, such as V. macrocarpon and V. oxycoccus): creeping plant on bogs, with long thin branches, leaves smaller, berries along on long thin fruit stalks

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Chamomile, what flower is on your tea box?

What do you think - does this chamomile tea box from STASH show chamomile flowers or something else?
  The medicinal plant chamomile has been used since ancient times for medicinal uses, especially as a calming and sleep inducing tea.  Chamomile is usually one of two similar-looking species, Roman chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile) or the more common German or wild chamomile  (Matricaria chamomilla). These species have many common names and also many scientific synonymous names, so I am listing some of them below.

So, what is the problem?  Well, there are many species in the sunflower family that look like white daisies with a yellow center, like both of the chamomiles have. So the companies that make chamomile tea packaging seems to have a horrible time putting the right species on the box.  Even worse is the stock photo market where a lot of 'chamomile tea' photos show something totally different than one of the two chamomile species.

Why does this matter?  Even if plants are similar in shape and color, they can have different chemistry.  Many times an edible plant may have a toxic look-alike.  If companies can't even bother putting the right plant on the label, can you trust them to check what is really in that bulk sample of dried leaves and flowers they are selling and want you to steep and drink and then sleep calmly on?  Maybe not... 

So, how does the two true chamomile species look like? First, the 'flower' of a chamomile is a whole flower head.  It is a member of the sunflower family, Asteraceae, and just like its relative the sunflower in each flower head there is a circle of outer small ray flowers (white), and in the flat center is an area of disk flowers (yellow) that look like small yellow tubes.

Here is German chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla, some older names are Chamomilla chamomilla, Chamomilla recutitaMatricaria recutita and Matricaria suaveolens):

German chamomile.
Photo by kallerna on Wikipedia, Creative Commons license.
German chamomile, in Köhler's Medizinal-Pflanzen on Wikimedia, public domain.
Note how the leaves of German chamomile are divided into many narrow segments, and how the flower head is hollow and uplifted in the center with age, and how the white ray flowers along edge becomes vertically pointed downwards with age.

Here is Roman chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile), a very similar species that previously has been called Anthemis nobilis.
Roman chamomile, in Köhler's Medizinal-Pflanzen on Wikimedia, public domain. 
The Roman chamomile also have finely dissected leaves and a central part of the flower head that is lifted up.

The most common mixup when it comes to photos and other illustrations of chamomile is with the oxeye daisy, Leucanthemum vulgare. It has very different leaves that are whole and with a serrate edge.  The flower heads are flatter and the ray flowers are a lot larger and longer.  This species is also often unbranched or just branched from the base, but Roman and German chamomile are often very much branched.
Ox-eye daisy, from Lindman's flora, now in the public domain.
Fleabane is another species you see mixed up with chamomile sometimes.  It has many, many more ray flowers and each white ray is a lot narrower than a chamomile or ox-eye daisy.
Fleabane, Erigeron annuus, with a branched inflorescence, whole leaves, and flower heads with many, many white ray flowers. Photo by Enrico Blasutto on Wikimedia, Creative Commons license.
The easiest way to tell these species apart is to look at the flowers in the flower head and the leaf shape - here is an overview of the good characters to tell them all apart:

Common name
German chamomile
Roman chamomile
oxeye daisy
Accepted name
Matricaria chamomilla
Chamaemelum nobile
Leucanthemum vulgare
Erigeron sp.
Older names
Matricaria recutita
Anthemis nobilis
Chrysanthemum leucanthemum
Erigeron annuus and E. strigosus are common species)
Leaf type on stem
finely dissected into small, long narrow lobes, fern-like
finely dissected into small, long narrow lobes, fern-like
simple, whole leaves wider towards the apex, edges with irregular teeth, leaves clasping stem
whole, lance-shaped to oblong, with serrate edge
Flower heads per plant
ca. 8–120 per plant, stem heavily branched
ca. 3-20 per plant, branches many
ca. 1-10, branches few and flower heads long-stalked
5–50+ per plant, branches many
Number of white ray flowers per head
ca. (10-)14-26
ca. 13–21
ca. 13–34
ca. 80–125, very thin and narrow
Ray (white) flowers on old flower heads
bending down under the flower head
bending down under the flower head
spread outwards, horizontal, sometimes downwards (wilted look)
spread outwards, horizontal, or coiling upwards
Yellow center in middle of flower head (= all disk flowers)
raised like a dome
raised like a dome
flat or sunken inwards
flat or slightly dome-shaped, often slightly sunken in center

So, who got it wrong and needs to fix their packaging illustrations? 
Royal herbal tea infusions show oxeye daisy on their chamomile tea. 

Stash's non-organic chamomile tea unfortunately shows a fleabane plant. Flea bane has been used for, you guessed it, remove fleas and other parasites on our bodies and clothes. Photo by BotanicalAccuracy.com.

Do any teaboxes show the right chamomile?  
Alvita Chamomile tea box with real chamomile on it.
Stash's organic chamomile tea shows nice real chamomile on it.
Traditional Medicinals also gets it right with their organic Chamomile tea.  Here is the right thing.

And then we have the world of stock photo inaccuracies, which seems to be a never-ending subject.  The lack of quality control of stock photos is rather astounding.

Dreamstime is selling two photos labeled as 'Cup of herbal tea with chamomile flowers'. Sorry, that is ox-eye flowers. Screenshot by BotanicalAccuracy.com.

And then we have the mystery plant.  On Tom's of Maine's toothpaste 'Botanically Bright, with natural chamomile', there is a flower head that is not chamomile, but something else in Asteraceae, and leaves that are neither chamomile, fleabane, nor oxeye daisy.  I wonder what it might be...
Tom's of Maine toothpaste Botanically Bright.  Photo by BotanicalAccuracy.com.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Magilla Coleus and Perilla summary

A great blog post was just posted today by rattlebox (aka Ron) at the forum  All Things Plants summarizing how the whole Magilla Perilla story started with the blogpost on this blog and the simple inquiry by a reader to the company that trademarked the name.  Thanks to everybody who has helped straighten out the mystery of the false Perilla. 

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Coleus - I am calling your name! (But what is it?)

Many gardeners and naturalists are frustrated when we botanists change the scientific names of species. I feel frustrated too, when the crown vetch changes its gorgeous, easy-to-remember (for me) name Coronilla varia, to Securigera varia. Now the genus name sounds like a financial security company, not like a gorgeous crown of pink flowers.

But change happen, and it happens for a good reason. We are sorting out old problems and making things better and more logical in the long run. Keep on reading and you will find out what
Coleus hybrids.
(cc) photo by Pharaoh Hound on Wikimedia.
Wild species change genus for mainly one reason. We try to classify all species with their closest relatives, so that everything in a genus comes from one common ancestor species. That means, all species has one origin back in time and share a common history. To figure out this history and these relationships we use DNA and morphology, and build up evolutionary trees that shows the story of species evolution over time.

Of course, when most plants were first described, they weren't part of evolutionary studies. We first started to construct evolutionary trees using DNA and computers in the late 1980s. In the beginning of botanical taxonomy at Linnaeus' time we didn't even know about evolutionary theory, since that came about in the 1860s with Darwin. The start date for botanical nomenclature is Linnaeus book Species Plantarum from 1753. Before recent times, scientists gave species their scientific placement and names based on overall similarity or dissimilarity, not evolutionary relationships.

In the blogpost about "Magilla Perilla" we listed the scientific name for coleus as Solenostemon scutellarioides. We also listed two older synonyms as Plectranthus scutellarioides and Coleus blumei. A few weeks ago we e-mailed botanist Alan Paton, who works on the evolution of this plant group at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in London, and asked him, "What is the correct species name for coleus, for real, and where does it belong?" 

His answer was maybe not what you expect. He said:
"I'm writing up the research at the moment. [...] Plectranthus including some other genera on one hand and Coleus and some other relations including Solenostemon form sister clades. The actual picture with denser sampling shows a slightly more complex picture than these earlier papers; but they give an outline which suggests Coleus should be recognized and Solenostemon would be embedded within it."

What does this mean?  Be prepared to see the scientific name your garden coleus change back to original genus Coleus in the near future, and Solenostemon will be no more (it will be merged into Coleus). Plectranthus will still be around but with fewer species and not include your garden coleus. So, coleus will be a Coleus again, which is very nice, and certainly easy to remember. It has been a mess with these names, but Alan is sorting it all out, once and for all. Check back here on the Botanical Accuracy blog when his paper comes out for an update.

It is really all about getting the right species in the right place in the giant evolutionary family tree, which includes over 300 000 plant species in the world. No wonder it is a little chaotic at times. But we have to do it, and we have to use the most updated scientific names possible to talk to each other about plants and understand our plants, across over the world. It is all part of the progress of knowledge.  And sometimes increased knowledge isn't that convenient to begin with.


Paton, A. J., et al. Phylogeny and evolution of basils and allies (Ocimeae, Labiatae) based on three plastid DNA regions. 2004. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 31: 277-299.

Lukhoba, C. W., M. SJ Simmonds, & A.J. Paton. 2006. Plectranthus: A review of ethnobotanical uses. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 103: 1-24.

'What is in a (PLANT) name?' on the FLORIDATA website