Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Anatomy of artichoke heads

This educational and interactive image from the artichoke company Ocean Mist Farms in California on the Anatomy of an Artichoke made me scratch my head. It is stated on their website as the largest artichoke producer in the US, and has a long history growing fresh vegetables of many kinds. On their website they provide a nice interactive feature where you can slide a slider across and see the inside, the anatomy, of an artichoke:
Screenshot of Anatomy of an Artichoke on the Ocean Mist website.
Screenshot by Botanicalaccuracy.com, 29 Nov 2016 (fair use).

 Unfortunately, the botanical facts about the artichoke head are not anatomically correct.
 The text states:
"You may be interested to know that the Artichoke is actually the bud of a plant from the thistle family and at full maturity, the plant grows to a width of about six feet and a height of three to four. If not harvested from the plant, the bud will eventually blossom into a beautiful, blue-violet flower, which is not edible. The bud contains the Heart, the delightful, meaty core of the Artichoke, and is topped by a fuzzy center, or choke, which is surrounded by rows of petals, which protect the Artichoke Heart. With their tiny thorns, the Artichoke’s petals reveal their thistle heritage."
The artichoke is indeed a type of giant thistle, and if you let it flower it will open up to show a flower head similar to thistles, just much larger.  But note the word HEAD, which is used for flower arrangements (inflorescences) that have tightly packed and unstalked flowers.

The thistles are part of the sunflower family, the Asteraceae, which is also the home of dandelions, marigolds, tarragon, mugwort, chicory, lettuce, chrysanthemum, and dahlias.  All of the species in this family have tiny flowers collected in a cup- or saucer-like head (capitulum), that is surrounded on the lower side by bracts (modified small leaves).  The flowers are small and tightly packed, often with tubular narrow (disc) flowers in the center and sometimes with longer, flattened (ray) flowers along the edge, like in a sunflower. One group of species have only ray flowers, like in dandelions.  In thistles, there are only tubular disc flowers, and the bracts are long and initially covers the whole sides and top of the head.

So, in their effort to educate the public about the fascinating anatomy of the floral heads of artichokes, Ocean Mist Farms manages to really mix things up.  Here is the corrected version of their image:
Corrected version of the screenshot of Anatomy of an Artichoke, original from Ocean Mist Farms. Modified image by Botanicalaccuracy.com. (fair use, cc-by)

Their text should read something like this instead:
"You may be interested to know that the Artichoke is actually the YOUNG FLOWER HEAD of a plant from the thistle family and at full maturity, the plant grows to a width of about six feet and a height of three to four. If not harvested from the plant, the HEAD will eventually blossom into a FLOWER HEAD WITH beautiful, blue-violet flowerS, which ARE not edible. The HEAD contains the Heart, the delightful, meaty core of the Artichoke, and is topped by a fuzzy center OF YOUNG FLOWERS, or choke, which is surrounded by rows of BRACTS, which protect the Artichoke Heart. With their tiny SPINES, the Artichoke’s BRACTS reveal their thistle heritage."
It is not too late to learn and this is not an uncommon mistake in the food world. Hopefully they fix this information soon.  If you want to dig deeper into the anatomy of artichokes, I recommend this post on the Botanist in the Kitchen blog.
(Thanks to RO for sending me this example of botanical inaccuracies in commercial products and companies.)

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Don't sneeze your weedy seeds

The confusion in what causes hay fever allergies has been a hot topic on this blog.  Despite modern medicine and pharmacology being rooted in science-based medicine, it seems that advertising for the same medical offices and pharmacological products for allergy-reduction has not gotten the same message.  Here are some photos from the outside walls of the allergy clinic next to the place where I am attending a meeting this week.
Image of wall advertising seen outside allergy clinic in Chattanooga, Tennessee, showing a child blowing the fruiting head of a dandelion. (c) photo by Botanical Accuracy, 2016.
Based on these, you would think that those white nice fluffy dandelion (or thistle) fruits would have something to do with your allergies.  Not so.  (The dog might though.)
Image of wall advertising with child, dog, and superimposed dandelions seen outside allergy clinic in Chattanooga, Tennessee. (c) photo by Botanical Accuracy, 2016.

Most hay fevers are caused by wind-dispersed POLLEN, which comes from tiny but mighty wind-pollinated flowers, such as those present in grasses, mug worts, birches, and ragweeds.  Dandelion flowers are insect pollinated (as explained here).  Dandelion fruits (or commonly called 'seeds), which are actually one-seeded small nuts (a kid of fruit) with a long stalk and umbrella of hairs to fly away, are not allergenic.  They just fly in the air, and gets to represent the invisible pollen that also fly in the air at the same time.  Unfortunately, this make people dislike dandelions even more.  
Image of wall advertising showing walking couple in meadow and superimposed dandelion fruits, seen outside allergy clinic in Chattanooga, Tennessee. (c) photo by Botanical Accuracy, 2016.
I can't help wonder if the highly educated, science-minded doctors in this office know about this mistake.  Wouldn't it be interesting to do a survey to see what allergy doctors actually know about wind-pollinated plants, wind-dispersed fruits, and common allergenic plants? I think it is about time that these doctors also should point out to the pharmaceutical companies and marketing designers that 'sorry, we only do science-based advertising and prescription here'.

mage of wall advertising showing biking child and superimposed dandelion fruits, seen outside allergy clinic in Chattanooga, Tennessee. (c) photo by Botanical Accuracy, 2016.
I know that the general skin test that you can done might come back saying that you are allergic to 'trees and weeds'. This is about as broad as saying you are allergic to 'mammals and garden pests'.  It is so non-specific and inaccurate that it is not useful if you want to actually know what you are allergic to.  But be sure, dandelions are not the culprit, and should not be plastered all over doctors' offices and allergy medication ads. 

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Bad taxonomy can kill world records

Or, When the world's tallest dandelion isn't a dandelion. 
The motto of The Guinness World Records is OFFICIALLY AMAZING.  And that it is, officially amazing, but not only in the sense that they might think.  When I was a kid in Sweden I loved their orange-colored book, (1975 edition, maybe?) and I read everything in it, and stared at the photos of the man with the longest nails (how did he eat?) and the largest cat, amused and entertained and informed.  Now I get to come back to this memorable source of trivia, but this time for a botanical and work-related reason.

The world record for the tallest dandelion is nearly a foot taller than most people was found by two Canadians 2011.  They had their dandelion verified by two experts in Canada (see below) and accepted by the Guinness office as an official world record. From the Guinness website:
"The tallest dandelion measured 177.8 cm (70 in) and was found by Jo Riding and Joey Fusco (both Canada) in Ontario, Canada. The dandelion was measured on 12 September 2011. The dandelion was found on 4 August 2011 and was unofficially measured at 76 in. The dandelion was then officially measured by NutriLawn and The Weed Man on 12 September 2011 when it had dried out and was measured as 70 in."  (link)
There is no photo of the plant on the record website, unfortunately, but there is a youtube video uploaded by JO Riding, telling the whole story of finding and measuring of the plant. 

By the time the plant was measured it had been dried for weeks, but you can clearly see in the video that it had many leaves on its stem, and that there were several flowers on the top of several branches.  There is no clear taproot and no rosette of basal leaves. To conclude, this was no dandelion. (And just to confirm, the Canadian botanist Luc Brouillet who wrote the Flora of North America treatment for dandelions, agrees with this conclusion.  And he should know.)

There are many species related to dandelions (genus Taraxacum) that are similar to dandelions in having yellow flower heads and 'puffball' seed heads that eventually blow in the wind, but they are not dandelions, they below to other genera.  All of these are members of the sunflower family (scientific name Asteraceae), and dandelion and its relatives are members of the Cichorieae (aka Lactuceae) subgroup (=tribe) that has members with milky sap (latex) that you can see if you break a leaf or stem.
Dandelion (Taraxacum)  from Lindman's Bilder ur Nordens flora, Public Domain.
Here is a real dandelion, a species in the genus Taraxacum. All the leaves are in a basal rosette at the base, and from the middle of the rosette a light-colored, hollow stem comes up and holds just one flower head. There is a big taproot under the plant that can survive year to year, and that is why they are so hard to get rid of - you have to dig them out. It is a perennial problem - cut the flower head stalk off with your lawn mower and it just sends up a new one from its low stem and perennial root.
Milk Thistle (Sonchus arvensis), illustration from
Otto Wilhelm Thomé Flora von Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz (1885), Public Domain.
And here is a weedy look-alike, but check out the differences in the position of the leaves and the branched stems with many flowers.  This is a milk thistle (Sonchus), which is probably what was reported from Ottawa as the world's tallest dandelion. It is unclear if the two Ottawa companies that certified its height, Nutri-Lawn and Weed Man, also certified its species identity, but both companies should be very familiar with dandelions and other weedy species.  Nutri-Lawn is a lawn care company specializing in "ecology friendly lawn care" and Weed Man, another gardening company has a very funny green man as their home page mascot.  It might be that Guinness World Records didn't ask for species verification. 

And then there was this UK news story this summer, Man accidentally grows the 'world's tallest dandelion plant'
Screenshot from The Telegraph (UK) website (link) by BotanicalAccuracy.com, 18 Aug 2016. Fair use.
" Mr Daniels is keen to get his dandelion officially measured as soon as possible before it starts to wilt or dry out. He added: "I'm not a gardener hence why I'm growing a dandelion, it is just luck that it has grown so big as I have done nothing to it over then let it grow." A Guinness World Records spokesman said: "We invite the claimant to make an application via our website in order for us to be able to ratify the achievement."
This is not a dandelion either. All those little flower heads in a strongly branched inflorescence and the leafy stems with bluish-green leaves with light-colored mid veins indicate that this seems to be Lactuca, maybe prickly lettuce (Lactuca serriola). Lactuca is the same genus as your supermarket lettuce, but this is a wild species. This is how Lactuca looks like. Some species have blue petals, other yellow.
Wild lettuce or prickly lettuce  (Lactuca serriola) from Köhler's Medizinal-Pflanzen, Public Domain.
For the record, WeedZilla with a height of 12 feet isn't the World's tallest dandelion either, that is something else in the sunflower family. It is a giant weed indeed, but not a dandelion. Sorry.   

The strange thing is that dandelions are not hard to identify with certainty if you know what to look for.  The book Foraging & Feasting: A Field Guide and Wild Food Cookbook by Dina Falconi includes a great 'plant map' illustrated by Wendy Hollender of all the good key characters for dandelions. You can also read about dandelion's great benefits and ancient ethnobotanical uses.  

I am not writing this to point out that people identify plants wrong.  That happens all the time, and is just a matter of education, curiosity, and interest in plants that live around us.  There are plant identification forums online with over 50 000 members, and the fact that people are curious about strange, cool, and giant plants is a great thing.  People should ask about plants, and let themselves be amazed by them. It is OK to know little, especially if you want to know more and satisfy your curiosity.

The problem is the fact checkers at Guinness World Records who put themselves and their company into this embarrassing situation.  First, they should make sure they actually have the right species in hand. The easiest for this is to have photos of the plant while alive, you know 'pics or it didn't happen!'.  They should also require a pressed specimen of the plant, not just air dried, but pressed between newspaper sheets so it is preserved and flat.  That way specialists can look at it later and say: "yep, you have a true dandelion!", or "sorry, that is a milk thistle, nice plant anyway!"  This is called vouchering and is standard practice for all species reports, including DNA testing, species inventories, herbal plant identification, and chemical analysis.  There is no reason why Guinness World Records could not implement this, and have a botanist verify the species identification and have a link to an actual preserved specimen (the proof). 

So, what is truly the record for world's tallest dandelion? Well, there are reports out there that show real dandelion (Taraxacum species). So far, the record seems to be the dandelion found by a Norwegian boy, Bjørn Magne, with a 108 cm (42 inches) long flower stalk, and reported to World Record Academy in 2007.  Before then, the Guinness World Book of Records had a 39-inch tall Swedish dandelion from 2003 as a record holder. The Nordic countries seem to be great for further giant dandelion exploration.  To inspire you, here are some dandelions on Iceland's lava-covered plains in the never-setting sun of Nordic summers. 
Dandelions on Iceland. Photo and copyright by Didrik Vanhoenacker (thanks for letting me borrow the photo).
PS.  Thanks to Asteraceae specialist Torbjörn Tyler, field biologist-on-call Didrik Vanhoenacker, professor emeritus Arthur Tucker, and dandelion taxonomist Luc Brouillet, who all helped and gave feedback on research for this blog post.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Lichen or Moss - that is the hard question... also for science editors

It appears that New Scientist needs to rename their recent story " Without oxygen from ancient moss you wouldn’t be alive today" to something more like "Without oxygen from lichens you wouldn’t be alive today", based on their featured image. The story was posted on their website on a few days ago, and features new research findings of how the earliest land plants (bryophytes/mosses) helped put oxygen in the atmosphere; here is the webpage: 
Screenshot from New Scientist website (link) by BotanicalAccuracy.com, 18 Aug 2016. Fair use.
The story is based on a very interesting paper in PNAS by Timothy Lenton and colleagues at Exeter University.  A science writer probably wrote up the text, but along came a photo editor, who went to a stockphoto gallery, in this case Getty images, to find a suitable image.  And he/she selected a lichen, not a moss, since that 'moss' is what the photographer had written in the description. Nobody appears to have checked with the authors of the paper or any other botanists if the image was suitable or correct.  (My advice for scientists is to always provide your own images for news stories, for exactly this reason.)
Screenshot from Getty Images by BotanicalAccuracy.com on 18 August 2016 of 
'Close-Up of Moss on Rocks' photo (link), featuring a lichen, not a moss. Fair use.
The bushy, light-colored lichens of the genus Cladonia shown above (also known as reindeer lichens and many other names) are seemingly perpetually misidentified and mislabeled as mosses, I have written about this elsewhere here on the blog.
White lichens, green mosses, and Swedish Christmas...
Reindeer moss is a lichen, not a moss

So how to avoid mistakes like this? It would be very helpful if stock photo companies demanded accurate descriptions of photos, and if media checked the images with the people that know, not the least the authors of the paper that is featured.  I can just imagine their frustration and possible horror to have their bryophyte story illustrated with a photo of a lichen, especially since there are so many gorgeous moss photos.  

PS.  Thanks to TT who notified me of this mistake, which hopefully will be corrected by the New Scientist editors very soon.
PS2. UPDATE: The photo is now corrected in the article in New Scientist. 

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Fine cooking out in the cabbage patch

In the most recent issue of the fine cooking magazine Fine Cooking, the writers have gone out on a somewhat thin taxonomic limb.
The Brassicas article in Fine Cooking.  Photo by BotanicalAccuracy.com.
So, what do they write?
"Arugula and turnips bear little resemblance to one another on the plate, so you might be surprised to learn that they both belong to the cabbage family, otherwise known as Brassica."
Well, arugula and turnips are both member of the cabbage family, but that family is called Brassicaceae, the mustard or cabbage family. Even if turnips is placed in Brassica, arugula is not, and in fact, the two commonly cultivated species of arugula are in different genera.

The article continues:
"Other members include broccoli, Broccolini, broccoli raab, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, cabbage, collard greens, mizuna, tatsoi, kale, watercress, radish, and horseradish." 
Yes, these are all members of the mustard family Brassicaceae, but not all are species of the Brassica genus. Brassica is one of about 375 genera in the mustard family.  Some of the species listed are actually cultivars (domesticated varieties) of the same species of Brassica.  And what is going on with that capitalization on common names?  Lets capitalize every second word that starts with B?   

So how does this all work?  What is really the same genus and species of these delicious plants?  There are many cultivated plants in the Brassicaceae family (the mustard family). Brassica gave its name to the family Brassicaceae, like Rosa (roses) to Rosaceae (rose family), and Poa (bluegrass) to Poaceae (grasses). All plant families have scientific names that end with '-aceae', rather convenient when you try to tell them apart from other group names.

giant cabbages
Giant cabbages (Brassica oleracea) at a market in Uzbekistan. Photo by Lena Struwe (Creative Commons).
There are many, many species and cultivars of Brassica (or brassicas, as they are sometimes called in English). The cultivated brassicas are ancient and a result of a lot of breeding, selection, and crossing of genotypes, so their taxonomy is a bit messy within Brassica itself. Sorting out the current common names, their scientific names, and classification of the brassicas has to wait for another blog post (which is in the works). But, the summary is:

The Brassica genus is a member of the family Brassicaceae. Many other edible mustard plants are placed in other genera of the Brassicaceae.