Saturday, March 23, 2013

Neutrogena: INCI and scientific species names

Screenshot of Neutrogena Naturals Lip Balm, from Neutrogena's website
(c) Neutrogena, fair use.

Neutrogena properly lists the scientific names of its plant-based ingredients according to the International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients (INCI). For example, this lip balm lists the ingredient as 'Butyrospermum Parkii (Shea) Butter'. 

Unfortunately, even if these ingredient names are based originally on scientific names of plants, they are formatted differently (i.e., no italics and both genus and species epithet starting with capital letter). Additional confusion arises when INCI does not update their names on plant-derived substances and products when the botanical scientific names get changed or updated. For example, the updated scientific name for the shea butter plant is Vitellaria paradoxa (link, and link). 

Sometimes a species name has changed in the last decade or so due to new evolutionary data showing that a genus has to be have a different circumscription to form a natural group.  That is the main reason why genus names change.  Sometimes it turns out that one species is actually two, or that two species actually is the same species, and then the species epithet change and maybe the genus stays the same.  (See here for a blog post about scientific names in general).

The plant ingredients listed for Neutrogena's Naturals Lip Balm are listed to left according to INCI, and the source plant's scientific name is to the right:

Simmondsia Chinensis (Jojoba) =  Simmondsia chinensis
Sesamum Indicum (Sesame) Seed Oil = Sesamum indicum
Helianthus Annuus (Sunflower) Seed Oil = Helianthus annuus
Olea Europaea (Olive) Fruit Oil = Olea europaea
Butyrospermum Parkii (Shea) Butter = Vitellaria paradoxa (link, and link)
Theobroma Cacao (Cocoa) Seed Butter= Theobroma cacao

See how confusing this can become?  So, if you talk about an ingredient in a cosmetics product you as a consumer or the commercial producer need to follow INCI, and if you talk about the actual plant that this ingredient comes from, then you should follow the most updated scientific plant name.  No wonder the public and companies are confused about plant ingredients, plant names, and plant species. After all, there is a quarter million plants or so to keep track of.

Friday, March 22, 2013

eHow: yellow thistle is a burdock, and more problems has an article about 'Thistle Plants with Yellow Flowers & Purple Leaves', where they say:

"The thistle is a common plant, typically characterized by prickly, greenish leaves with a purple tuft in the center. There are several varieties of thistle, such as the yellow thistle. The yellow variety is more rare and not typically seen in most spots in the United States, whereas the purple variety is known as a noxious weed considered an invasive species. The yellow thistle plant is the opposite and is even considered to be endangered in some states." (source)

This text is written as if there only are two species (here called varieties, also a mistake) of thistles in the US, which is wrong. There are many species of purple-flowered thistles, and several kinds of yellow-flowered thistles too.  Some of the purple-flowered ones are invasive, others are not. The text oversimplifies and is wrong on several accounts.  Not all thistles are in the same genus either.  Since the author never mentions a scientific name, it is hard for the reader to figure out exactly what he/she is talking about.
Screenshot from eHow article on thistle plants.
(c) eHow, fair use
The article is accompanied by a photo by Henryk Olszewski from  Unfortunately for eHow, the photo shows a burdock in the genus Arctium, not a thistle. Burdocks and thistles are closely related but in different genera.  Additionally, the burdock neither has yellow flowers nor purple leaves.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Aveda: The lipstick plant

The plant Bixa orellana (family Bixaceae) is commonly called 'lipstick plant' and it is the plant we get the red coloring annato and achiote from.  It is a tropical tree, and the red dye comes from the seeds.

It is included in Aveda's online ingredient list with a correct photo and description, but it listed with the wrong genus name: Bixz.

Annatto from Aveda's website, screenshot.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Weleda: Wrong centaury

Weleda is a company providing skincare, health, and beauty products based on natural ingredients and biodynamic principles.  They list their plant ingredients in an online dictionary (more companies should do this, it is an excellent resource), and get their botanical taxonomy mostly correct (with the exception of their capitalization of species epithets).

There are, however, one major mistake, and this is a mistake that is not uncommon.  The common name centaury is used for several unrelated plant genera, most commonly Centaurium (a gentian, in Gentianaceae), and Centaurea in the sunflower and aster family (Asteraceae).

The plant listed as "Centaury (Centaurium Erythraea)", should be Centaurium erythraea, but the photo at Weleda's website is of Centaurea cyanus, so the two genera are also mixed up.  It is simply the wrong species photo with the bitter-tasting Centaurium plant they use in their products.
Centaury, screenshot from
The common name for the blue-flowered Centaurea cyanus is often cornflower, since it is a common weed in grain fields in Europe (corn in Europe is not the same as American corn, that is called maize in Europe). Centaurium erythraea on the other hand is a pink-flowered herb that grows in meadows, roadsides, and slightly wet areas. 

The species epithet should be listed with a lower case letter in the beginning, as 'erythraea'.  Weleda gets this formatting rule wrong for most of its plant species names, but that is easy to fix. For example, 'Arnica Montana' should be 'Arnica montana' in the ingredient list to be accurate.

Common names that are the same for several unrelated species are not at all unusual; examples are snakeroot, hemlock, sycamore, and ironweed. One species can have several common names too, so common names can be very confusing. Only scientific names are unique to a species and universal and the same worldwide.  But more on that in a later post. 

Monday, March 18, 2013

Apple's Siri ad: wrong poison oak

Poison oak iPhone ad, but it is poison ivy!
Ad for Siri and iPhone 4 in The Economist. 
Photo by Vilseskogen on Flickr, Creative Commons license.
In July 2012 Apple ran a print-ad featuring their new iPhone 4S and its Siri answering system, featuring the question "What does poison oak look like?" The photo above is from the ad printed on the back of the magazine The Economist.

The problem is that the answer Siri gave in the ad is not correct. That is not how poison oak (Toxicodendron diversilobum) looks like, that is how poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) looks like. Both are members of the Anacardiaceae family, which also includes mango, pistachio, cashew and rose pepper. There are also several other species of Toxicodendron in North America, all of them toxic.

In fact, the photo shown in the ad is the photo of poison ivy from Wikipedia. Both species are toxic and give horrible dermatitis, but they occur in different parts of the country. Generally speaking, if you are on the west coast of North America you have to look out for poison oak, and if you are east of the Rocky Mountains and in the eastern part of the United States, you better learn quickly how poison ivy looks like.CDC has a good overview of the different toxic North American species in Toxicodendron.

The mistake was covered by several media stories, here are some: Philadelphia Inquirer, CNet and Neowin.

The dermatitis caused by these species can be very severe, and this is a plant group we all should be able to identify. If you ask Siri to look up poison oak you get the correct answer, so the botanical inaccuracy most likely happened in the making of the ad.  Since these are some of the most common and most toxic species we have in North America, this mistake is not minor...

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Burt's Bees: Canola oil plant

The beauty and skin product company Burt's Bees gets a lot of their botany fully correct in their online ingredient list, but manage to get one of the most common plant-derived oils listed with a mistake in its scientific name, like this:


Canola oil comes from two different plants in the genus Brassica, which is in the mustard family (Brassicaceae).  In this genus are all the common cabbage crops - broccoli, cauliflower, broccoli rabe, white and red cabbage, brussels sprouts, rape seed, kale, collards, turnip, kohlrabi, some of the mustards, and rutabaga.  Through artificial breeding over hundreds of years these plants have been bred into crop varieties for the harvest of their seeds, leaves, roots, flowers, and seeds, respectively.

The two species that canola oil can come from are Brassica napus and Brassica rapa, and B. rapa now usually includes plants previously called Brassica campestris (not campetstris, as listed on Burt's Bees website). Since each species includes many cultivars and crops with a variety of common names, the scientific names have to be used to define the species in taxonomy.

INCI lists Canola oil as being  "an oil derived from Brassica napus L., Brassicaceae, low in erucic acid".  [Note the lack of italicizing the scientific name of the plant.]

Brassica napus. Source: Köhlers Medizinal-Pflanzen, Wikimedia, Public domain.

Canola oil is derived from the seeds, which are black and tiny and situated inside a long capsule. 

The Brassica taxonomy is still a bit uncertain (and messy), but here is an updated list of the species in the genus. Listing canola oil as Brassica campestris is not a major mistake considering the messy taxonomy of these species, but misspelling campestris is definitely incorrect.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Royal Copenhagen: Flora Danica (example 2)

In this earlier post I explained the background of the Flora Danica series produced by Royal Copenhagen.  Here is another new design from 2012, listed as 'Stedmoderblomst' in the Danish catalog, and as 'Pansy' in the English version of the catalog.

 Source: Royal Copenhagen.
Stedmoderblomst is one of several species of violets (genus Viola, family Violaceae) that are common in Denmark, and the most common species of these are Viola arvensis and Viola tricolor.  None of the violets look the species depicted on this pattern, however.
Source: Royal Copenhagen.

This is how the violets look like:

Viola arvensis.
Source: Bernd Haynold via Wikimedia, Creative Commons.

Viola tricolor
Source: Incola via Wikimedia, Public Domain.

A detailed look at the plant depicted on this china shows that it is likely a monkshood (Aconitum, family Ranunculaceae). A search through the illustrations of Flora Danica provided by the Royal Library in Copenhagen yields this plate, Aconitum napellus, plate number 1698.

Aconitum napellus. Source: The Royal Library, Flora Danica.
So, from a dainty little violet, to one of the most toxic plants in Europe. 

The Aconitum illustration shows a stem with flowers and also a flower that is removed from the stem, and then pressed open and flattened.   Now, compare this illustration to the pattern painted onto the Royal Copenhagen plates and cups. 
 Source: Royal Copenhagen.

Not only is the species wrong, but the parts of the plant has been removed and then reassembled.  An opened, slightly destroyed flower has been reattached to a partial stem with flowers, The plant morphology has completely changed, and a new plant mutant has been created.  Of course this is perfectly fine in the creation of art, but not if you say that all the imagery is from historic Flora Danica and depict the plants of Denmark. 

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Canada's government: Wrong maple on the money

Canada's new $20 bill, 2012. Copyright: CBC.
As reported by CBC Canada a little while ago, botanists in Canada have shown that the newly designed $20 Canadian bill, shows a leaf of the Norway maple (Acer platanoides), not the sugar maple (Acer saccharum). The white-silvery leaf on the bill above on the right side is the wrong species.
   Maple is the national tree of Canada, which has ten native species.  The sugar maple is probably the most commonly known due to the production of maple syrup from sap collected in the spring and its fantastic red to yellow fall color.  Norway maple, however, is a European species often planted in Canada and USA and that is now considered invasive in forests of North America.
   This mistake is like having a mallard duck instead of a turkey as your Thanksgiving decoration or main dish.  Or buying a plum instead of a peach because you don't know the difference (both of those are in the same genus, just like the two maples).
    Click on the link to CBC above to read more.  The Canadian government's excuse is not that great - and it would have been easy to ask a botanist and avoiding this mistake from the beginning. Even if botanists don't grow on trees, they are quite abundant.

This post was updated on 28 January 2014 with some new information regarding Canada's national tree. Thanks MF for the additional information!

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Royal Copenhagen: Flora Danica (example 1)

One of the most expensive china sets in the world, Flora Danica, is produced by the renowned company Royal Copenhagen, and the designs are taken from the historic illustrated works of Flora Danica ('The Flora of Denmark').  For their recent designs, they incorrectly named not one, but two, of the species they have used from the flora illustrations.  Both species are commonly known plants, not rare species.
Source: Royal Copenhagen's 2012 brochure.
The two 2012 designs are also prominently featured in their marketing brochure. Both designs are made by Anja Vang Kragh, a freelance designer. This mistake really surprised me considering the long tradition of excellence in botany in Denmark, and that all illustrations from Flora Danica are available with scientific names.  
The two plates that have the wrong species listed.
Source: Royal Copenhagen's 2012 brochure.
Example 1: The lion's teeth that was a goat's beard

This pattern is listed as 'Dandelion' in the English 2012 catalog, and as 'Mælkebøtte' (the Danish name for dandelion) in the Danish version of the 2012 catalog. Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) is one of the most common weeds in the northern hemisphere and most everybody can recognize a dandelion. This is how the newly designed china looks like:

'Dandelion' pattern from Royal Copenhagen's Flora Danica series. Image source: Royal Copenhagen.
A quick search through The Kongelig Bibliotek's online Flora Danica illustrations, shows that 'Mælkebøtte' brings you to Taraxacum, just as it should. However, none of the plates are the design used on the plates above.  Instead, the design on the china is most likely from this Flora Danica illustration (see below), with parts removed, the illustration inverted, parts moved and copied in, and so on.

Tragopogon minor, Flora Danica, plate 2838.
Source:; Public Domain.
This Flora Danica illustration features Tragopogon minor, a species that now goes under the name Tragopogon pratensis subspecies minor. It is called 'Meadow's salsify' or 'Showy Goat's Beard' in North America (the edible salsify belongs to the genus Scorzonera, also in this family).  It is considered a weed in North America, and it was introduced from Eurasia. It is a very common plant in southern Scandinavia, and it is in the same family (Asteraceae) as dandelion.
      You can easiest tell these two genera apart based on the long narrow leaves, while dandelion has toothed leaves, like lion's teeth, which is how it got its common name in English.
      Interestingly enough, Royal Copenhagen has already used this exact illustration on a previous Flora Danica piece, see here. It was then used with the correct species name in their catalog.

Example 2 will focus on the 'pansy' or 'stedmoderblomst' design, also shown above in the photo from the 2012 brochure.

Monday, March 11, 2013

LUSH: Kaffir Limes and Lime trees (Example 1-4)

LUSH with its fragrant, colorful, and funky beauty products uses a lot of natural, plant-based ingredients.  They provide excellent information about their ingredients, but still manages to list many species and/or their Latin names wrong in their Ingredient Finder.  Their ingredient list goes mostly by plant names, not plant ingredient names. I applaud their efforts in ingredient transparency, and these examples illustrates some of the issues raised in the blog posts below this.

LUSH gets many species names correct, but here are some examples of botanical inaccuracies when plant species are listed:

Kaffir lime leaf, Tilia europaeaThe photo at this entry shows leaves of the Kaffir lime plant, Citrus hystrix, a relative of the common lime and orange, and in the Rutaceae family.  The text under this entry refers to an European hardwood tree genus called limes or linden trees, that is related to mallows and cotton and in the Malvaceae family. The listed species, Tilia europaea, should be listed as Tilia x europaea (common lime), since it is a naturally occurring hybrid of two wild European species in this genus (a synonym for this species is Tilia x vulgaris).
    This is a complete mix up of two species, one a kind of tropical Citrus and the other a tall tree from Europe. These two species couldn't be more different.  Lime of course, also refer to calcium oxide or calcium hydroxide, among many other things.
    Common names in English are often not unique to one particular plant species, that is why we have unique Latin names for all species. I think that the species used in the products are Citrus hystrix, which has plenty of essential oils of a flavor that are also used in Asian cooking. But you shouldn't have to guess, it should be clear on the company's website.  Here is how different the two species are in leaf morphology:
Kaffir Lime leaves, Citrus hystrix
(Image source: Fatrabbit, Wikimedia commons, CC license)
Common Lime leaves, Tilia x europea
(Image source: Alvesgaspar, Wikimedia commons, CC license)

Blackcurrant, Ribes Nigrum: should be Ribes nigrum.

Flax, Linum Usitatissimum: should be Linum usitatissimum

Indigo Henna (Indigofera Tintctoria): should be indigo, Indigofera tinctoria. Note spelling of the Latin name.  Henna comes from another plant, so the made up common name 'indigo henna' is confusing and doesn't refer to a species, but to a LUSH product.

Philadelphia Flower Show 2012: Pineapple

tropical horticulturalists that can't spell the Latin name of pineapple, embarrassing
Sign for pineapple (Source: Vilseskogen on Flickr, Creative Commons)
Pineapple's Latin (scientific name) is Ananas comosus, not Ananas comusus. This sign was seen at the Philadelphia Flower Show in 2012, which had a Hawaiian theme.

Pineapple is an interesting fruit formed by many flowers around a leafy stem. By the way, comosus, means 'andundant with leaves or hairs' in Latin.

In this case it might not matter much practically if the spelling is correct, but you can't look up the name and find more information about the species if the name is wrong, and in some genera you have many species with very similar names.  Details and spelling matters in taxonomy, since the name functions as the place holder for information worldwide and is the key to the giant system of all living things. Without proper Latin names we wouldn't know what we are talking about, especially not across language and/or country barriers. Latin names are our global RFID's for plants.  

How to write scientific names correctly

Writing the scientific names of species (sometimes also called Latin names), is not that complicated.  Just follow these simple rules.
  1.  Scientific species names are always italicized. Like this: Quercus rubra. (You do not need to italicize family names.)
  2. The genus name is always capitalized. Like this: Taraxacum, Rosa, or Quercus.
  3. The species epithet, the part that comes after the genus name and that is specific to this species is always in lower-case letters.  In the past, it was OK to capitalize this as well when it was based on a geographic name or a person's name (example: America, Smith), but no longer.  Examples: americana, smithii, or novae-anglicae. Do not change the ending of the words, the endings are important and there is only one correct ending.
  4. Where can you look up correct spellings of species names?  Well, there are probably half a million published scientific names of plants, maybe more, and there is no global list of all correct and accepted scientific species names.  But there are a couple of good resources to check spellings of names:
    • IPNI, International Plant Names Index: very taxonomic, highly accurate, does not say which names that are currently used, every published plant species is listed
    • The Plant List: very good and accurate for some families, still in the works for others, tries to indicate if species names are accepted or if they are synonyms of other species
    • USDA -Plants Database (USA only): Good for North American wild and naturalized plants, a few names are outdated, otherwise great, with additional information (maps, synonyms, endangered species, etc.)
    • USDA - National Plant Germplasm System (GRIN): Database of economic plants and their names, worldwide, very good, but not complete. 
    • Wikipedia: In the last couple of years, Wikipedia has become more and more of a reliable source of taxonomic information.  Not all species are included, but there is often correct species (and family) information available there, as well as the correct spelling of Latin names of common plants.