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.)