Thursday, May 23, 2013

Lessonia: 'Marine lichen' is not a lichen, it is a red algae

Lessonia is a company that provides ingredients to cosmetics companies.  They specialize in exfoliators and botanical extracts, including several from seaweeds. 

So, what is a seaweed?  This common name has been used for all multi-cellular (= not one-celled planktonic) algae that grow (mostly) in marine areas, regardless of which group of algae they belong to.  So included in seaweeds are green, red, or brown algae, which all belongs to different evolutionary lineages. You have kelp (brown), sea lettuce (green), carrageenan (red), nori (red algae of sushi fame), and so on.

There are only a few flowering plants that live in the ocean similar to seaweeds, the most well-known being eelgrass (Zostera marina).   So, seaweed is a practical common-name term we humans use and it groups many unrelated plants together. Algae is the same, that group name is also a practical group name of no taxonomic use anymore since it doesn't define an evolutionary group with a common ancestor and common history.

The group 'Algae' in fact includes members from maybe 8-9 different evolutionary lineages.  We taxonomists sometimes call such groups 'taxonomic trashbags', since they contain a mishmash of many different things that are unrelated to each other.  But when you talk about oceans, we can use the term algae just to identify their plant life.

Carragen sea weed
Irish moss (Chondrus crispus), a red algae.
(cc) Vilseskogen on Flickr

Back to Lessonia - this company sells something call Lichen Glycerin ExtractIn their brochure about this product, also called 'Marine Lichen', they say:
"Marine lichen lives on rocks, in pools, lower intertide."
"The Lichen glycerin extract is [...]  polysaccharides contained in this red algae.  "
The listed ingredient for the Lichen Glycerine extract following the INCI guidelines are:
Irish moss (Chondrus crispus).
Public domain image, Chondrus, Wikipedia

So, what is Chondrus crispus?  This species of red algae is often called Irish moss or carageen moss, and is the marine source of the compound carageenan, a thickener often used in icecream and many other food products (and some cosmetics too).  This plant has absolutely nothing to do with lichens, and in fact, there are no lichens that live in the sea.  On the rocks along the shore, yes, but nothing permanently under water.  To call this 'Marine Lichen' is as wrong as calling an elephant a giant ostrich.  

Why not call this MARINE IRISH MOSS EXTRACT?  

This plant has already the common name of 'Irish moss', which of course has nothing to do with real mosses that are green land plants - but traditionally commonly used names are OK to use.  Introducing a big misrepresentation by calling this plant a lichen is something very different. Lichens, by the way, are organisms where a fungus and a plant (usually green algae) live together in symbiosis.  Which is very cool!

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Greening Singapore with temperate weeds?

2013 logo for Singapore's National Park Service
© Singapore National Parks, fair use.

I recently recieved an e-mail from Singapore and this nice logo above was attached to the e-mail.  It celebrates 50 years of Greening Singapore by their National Parks service.  I have never been to Singapore, but I have heard and read about its fantastic tropical flora and fauna, and how this country supports environmental sustainability.

The issue here are the flowers in the logo.  The trees appear to be tropical trees, but the nice wildflowers in the foreground appears to be mostly temperate weeds.  Maybe these are common in Singapore as well, but wouldn't you have wanted to highlight tropical flowers such as orchids, hibiscus, or maybe even some nice native wildflowers. Singapore is nearly on the equator, so about as far away you can get from our temperate flora and seasons.

The wildflowers in question appear to be (from left to right):

Close-up of logo above.
A thistle? (Cirsium?, Asteraceae) {also known as a common weed}
A hawkweed or dandelion? (Taraxacum, Crepis, Hieracium?, Asteraceae) {another weed}
An oxeeye daisy? (Leucanthemum vulgare, Asteraceae)

Close-up of logo above.
a blue bell (Campanula, Campanulaceae)

These would be the kind of flowers you find in (well, maybe outside...) London, for example, and they are typical of temperate areas.  I can't help wonder if the company that designed the logo just went online and picked any pretty flowers they could find, or sent out the work order to a designer without thinking about what plants that would be appropriate for this particular place. Of course there is artistic freedom, but in this case, the logo is supposed to celebrate the work of making Singapore a more green tropical city. 

If any Singaporean botanists read this, please let me know what you think, because I would love to have your feedback on this. 

Monday, May 13, 2013

The difference between stems, stalks, and petioles in rhubarb

This is the wonderful rhubarb season!  And for those of us that like the tart flavor, the red shiny stalks (or sometimes green) makes us imagine pies, fruit tarts, jams, and sauces...   Rhubarb is also showing up in spring issues of cooking magazines, radio shows, newspaper articles, and so on.

The inaccuracy that often is perpetuated with rhubarb is what we properly call the name the plant part we eat.  The 'stalks' we eat is the edible part of the otherwise toxic plant, and it is the leaf stalks.  The botanical, scientific name for this in English is 'petiole'.  This photo shows clearly how each stalk is connected to each leaf.
Rhubarb leaves with edible leaf stalks/petioles.
(cc) Dieter Weber, Wikipedia
The problem is that many times people inaccurately call it rhubarb stems.  A stem is a part of the plant that is a central shoot that holds the leaves, branches, flowers, and so on.  The true rhubarb stem is a hollow, nearly bamboo-like cylinder, which leads up to a terminal shoot that eventually develops flower buds. A stalk, on the other hand, can be both leaf stalk and the stem of a plant. Here is a photo of a rhubarb stem with flowers and small leaves:
Rhubarb flower, 12th May 2006
Flowering rhubarb stem.
(cc) Septuagent on Flickr
Here are some examples of botanical inaccuracy when it comes to written online rhubarb information :

Wikipedia: "The use of rhubarb stems as food is a relatively recent innovation, first recorded in 17th century." 
{But Wikipedia gets it right in the beginning of the article on rhubarb.}

Royal Horticultural Society (RHS): "Rhubarb is a rhizomatous perennial whose stems (‘sticks’) grown as vegetable but used mainly as a dessert."   "Stems should be pulled rather than cut to prevent rotting of the remaining stump. "

Mark Bittman for The New York Times: "Buy the smallest stems you can find and use a vegetable peeler or paring knife to remove the stringy outer layer."

Sunday, May 12, 2013

The New York Times: Restaurant NOMA in Copenhagen

In July 6, 2010, The New York Times published an article by Frank Bruni about the amazing and world-renowned restaurant NOMA in Copenhagen and the foraging of food products from wild plants by its chef, René Redzepi.  

The well-written article was accompanied by a slideshow named "In Copenhagen, Cooking without Rules", showing some of the nature-provided ingredients in chef Redzepi's food. Unfortunately the text accompanying some of the images were incorrect. The New York Times was notified about these errors, but has not yet corrected the information.

Screenshot from NY Times article, by
Image text: "Axel berry shoots are among the various petals, leaves and shoots Mr. Redzepi integrates into his food."

The problem and its correction:  This appears to be whitebeam flower buds from a small tree named 'oxel' in Swedish, 'whitebeam' in English, and its scientific genus is Sorbus (in the rose family Rosaceae).  The flower buds on this photo are probably from either Sorbus aria (akselrøn in Danish, common Whitebeam in English) or Sorbus intermedia (seljerøn; Swedish whitebeam).  
     The rowan tree (Sorbus aucuparia, rönn in Swedish, almindelig røn in Danish) is closely related to these, but in my experience that never has white-hairy flower buds. I have found no record that this species has ever been called 'axel berry' or 'axel', in English, Danish, or Swedish for that matter.  
     I think the photographer misheard the Danish name 'akselrøn' or the Swedish name 'oxel' when he took notes and then never checked the typed up name with the source. The seeds in the fruits might contain cyanide, just like many other plants of this family, but the photo shows young flower buds.
Screenshot from NY Times article, by
Image text: "Thuja cone"'

The problem:  This is not a Thuja (arborvitae) cone, it is a cone from a pine tree, most likely Scots Pine, Pinus sylvestris (Pinaceae), the pine species that is native to Denmark.  The photo shows an immature pine cone, before the seeds have formed inside it.  Pines are edible plants, even if they often have strong resin flavor.  Thuja is a member of the juniper family Cupressaceae, and it contains the chemical thujone, which you don't want to ingest too much of since it can be highly toxic.  The cones of the commonly cultivated arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis) look totally different, so there is no easy way to explain this inaccuracy in the information provided by The New York Times.

  (Both images are screenshots from the NY Times website used under fair use, photos © The New York Times.)

This post was updated with new information on 28 January 2014. Thanks MF for sending new information! 

"Rosa arctica" - the Kiehl's plant that doesn't exist

Rosa Arctica cream.
© Kiehl's, fair use
Instead of using the wrong name for a plant, you can invent a new scientific plant name to help you market a new product. This is the case for Kiehl's recently released products named ROSA ARCTICA, based on the 'resurrection flower', a rare plant named Haberlea rhodopensis in the African violet family (Gesneriaceae) and used as an anti-aging ingredient. This plant has nothing to do with roses, and the genus Rosa. There is no species previously named Rosa arctica, but Rosa is the rose genus, and arctica stands for being from the Arctic (which this plant is not from). And there is no ingredient derived from real roses in the product either.

 It appears that the naming of this product is a total marketing scam and misrepresentation, and an attempt to come up with a scientifically sounding product name that is also attractive to buyers.

I guess Haberlea rhodopensis didn't sound too great to the PR department, so they just invented a new name - which you can't really do in science. In marketing, sure, but I would consider this false marketing since Kiehl's are using an irrelevant and incorrect scientific name.   But it works, and Vanity Fair likes the name, since they wrote:

"[...] Kiehl’s scientists have taken this flower and made a
fabulous cream with it, aptly named Rosa Arctica."

What is so aptly with a name that doesn't represent the source plant? Imagine if it had been a name of a chemical name that had been changed into a new name similar to a harmless chemical and used for marketing. 

This case is also similar to the renaming of Patagonian Toothfish to Chilean Sea Bass to boost sales, except in this case they adopted the highly regulated scientific naming system for species for their marketing name - Kiehl's didn't just invent a new common name, which would have been much less disturbing.

Here is Kiehl's website ad for ROSA ARCTICA:

ROSA ARCTICA, skin cream by Kiehl's.  Image © Kiehl's, fair use
The flowers in the foreground in the ad are supposed to be Haberlea rhodopensis, I assume, but the flowers in the ad are not very similar to the actual flowers of the plant (see photo here from Dave's Garden website). Not much is known about this plant, also called Resurrection Flower, found in the mountains of Greece and Bulgaria.  It can survive for a long time, over two years, without much water, and then 'come to life' again when watered.

Extracts from the plant has been shown to help human skin (reference link), but at least some of this research was done by the company, Induchem, that is selling the extract, not by independent scientists.

On the official ingredient list on the product packaging, the extract from the plant (listed as 'Haberlea rhodopensis leaf extract', correctly according to INCI) is in or near the very end of the ingredient list, meaning that it is the ingredient with the smallest concentration in the final product. However, the inaccuracies continue, because on the Kiehl's website, the ingredient is listed as "Rosa Arctica (Haberlea rhodopensis)", which is totally inaccurate.  There is nothing called this name in nature, nor in INCI's official list of plant-derived ingredients.  And the reason is, of course, that Rosa Arctica does not exist, except as a marketing ploy for selling more of Kiehl's products.  It might work great on your skin, but there is no logical or ethical reason why this product should have a fake scientific name.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

LUSH: Which bay leaf plant?

 On the cosmetics company LUSH's web page they list information about all their ingredients.  Here is their information for "Fresh Bay Leaf Infusion (Pimenta Acris)", which features a major botanical inaccuracy. 
Screenshot from LUSH webpage about bay leaf
© LUSH, fair use
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The bay leaf, laurel, bay laurel, or sweet bay commonly used in European cooking and herbal medicine is named Laurus nobilis.  In the text below the heading, this name is listed, with appropriate and correct information regarding this species' origin, history, and use. This is probably also the species in the photograph, but it is hard to tell. Laurus is in the laurel family, Lauraceae.

However, the name Pimenta acris refers to a totally different plant species, the West Indian Bay Tree, which has a multitude of common names and its origin is in the Caribbean.  It is also used for its essential oils in cooking, but high concentrations of the oil is toxic.  The current, updated scientific name is Pimenta racemosa, so Pimenta acris is a synonym, and this little tree belongs to the eucalyptus family, Myrtaceae. 

So, which plant did LUSH use in their products?  It is impossible to tell from their website, but lets hope they know...

Gordolobo is or isn't mullein?

 On a recent trip to Minnesota I bought a packet of Mexican herbs by the company Mi Costeñita sold as Gordolobo, a common medicinal plant used in traditional medicine. Under the Mexican name, the translated name in English was listed as 'mullein leaves'.

Gordolobo herb bought at a Mexican market
'Gordolobo mullein leaves', which is instead some Asteraceae flowers.
A closer inspection of the packet revealed that the content was certainly not dried leaves, certainly not mullein's fuzzy leaves, but something that looked like flower heads of the plant family Asteraceae (similar to everlasting flower heads). Here is a close-up photo.

Gordolobo herb bought at a Mexican market
Close up of'Gordolobo mullein leaves', which is Asteraceae flowers.

It seems that the content of this packet is flower heads of gordolobo, which in English is also called "Rabbit Tobacco, Sweet Everlasting, Cudweed, Old Field Balsam, Sweet White Balsam, Indian Posy, Life of Man, Poverty Weed, and Fussy Gussy" and its scientific name is Gnaphalium obtusifolium.  An informative article by Matthew Wood on this species is posted on Sunnyfield Herb Farm's webpage, here.

University of Texas-El Paso's website with herb fact sheets give additional information about Gnaphalium's medicinal uses and adds the common name 'mexican mullein'.

Many of the Gnaphalium species are look-alikes, so it is hard to tell which exact species this is just from a visual inspection.  It certainly isn't mullein leaves, which look like this if it is Verbascum thapsus, the common weedy species called common mullein.  Mullein is a member of the family Scrophulariaceae (related to snapdragons), and far removed from the chemistry of the sunflower family Asteraceae.

But, to add to the confusion, the name gordolobo is also used for mullein in Spanish - so, maybe the label isn't wrong but the content of the package?  Wikipedia lists only two species of Verbascum, no Gnaphalium, under the entry "Té de Gordolobo".  It is impossible to know if the producer and seller of this product intended this to be Gnaphalium or Verbascum... problematic to say the least.

So, the name gordolobo is used in Spanish for two different herbals with very different chemistry.  This is why it is important to use not only common names on packages, but also the unique scientific name.  You need to know what you buy and drink and eat, and sellers need to know what they sell.