Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Missing the mark in state symbols (part 1): When a state flower isn't a flower

Countries, states, and provinces around the world often select symbolic things to represent their place and these are often considered typical for that region.  The US has the bald eagle as their symbolic country bird, and New Jersey (in US) has the oak as their state tree.  Each province ('landskap') in Sweden has a province plant, for example the white waterlily is the 'landskapsblomma' (province flower) of the Södermanland.  The same Swedish province also has a selected a moss (hart's-tongue thyme-moss), an animal (osprey), a fish (bream), a mushroom (black trumpet mushroom), an insect (the striped shield bug), and a rock ( special type of gneiss).

Many states in the United States have also selected foods, vegetables, animals, arts, fossils, insects, festivals, holidays as their special state symbols (see list here).  Sometimes this misses the mark, when selected species or objects do not really fit into their category based on biological or other definitions.  In this blogpost series I will present a few of these cases.

Botanical illustration of white pine from Bauer's book A Description of the Genus Pinus
made by A. B. Lambert. (PD-public domain, Wikimedia, NYBG.)
State Flower of Maine:
Unfortunately for Maine, the selected state flower in 1895, the white pine (Pinus strobus), do not have flowers.  It doesn't belong to the flowering plants, instead it is a conifer.  Conifers don't have carpels and they don't produce fruits, and they don't have sepals, petals, ovaries, or stamens.  Instead the ovules are places on bracts in short whorls (this is the female strobilus, which will become a pine cone), and the male parts that shed immense amounts of pollen in the spring, are on separate male strobili that look like little dusters (sometimes called tassels).  Other types of conifers are cedars, redwoods, and ginkgos. Luckily for Maine, the white pine is also the state tree since 1945, and that is botanically correct.

Conclusion: The state flower of Maine isn't a flower.

The eastern white pine is still a gorgeous tree.

Iced pine needles on Pinus strobus, eastern white pine. 
21 Dec 2008. Photo by Lena Struwe (creative commons, on Flickr)

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

The story of the superfluous drumstick tree species

Just tonight I was looking through the most recent catalogue from LUSH, the novelty-loving skincare company from Canada, and botanical accuratist as I am, I was scanning the ingredient lists at the end of the catalogue. This is always interesting, you never know what you might find! Here is an example of the lists can look like:

One of many pages in the LUSH catalogue, listing the ingredients to their products according to the INCI database. Photo by BotanicalAccuracy.com.
All skincare ingredients follow the standardized INCI database naming system, so that all ingredients follow a particular format and have a standardized name.  INCI is managed by the Personal Products Care Council who are in the process of updating scientific names that have become outdated or changed.

One of the names I found was MORINGA OIL (MORINGA PTERYGOSPERMA) from the medicinal moringa plant in the family Moringaceae, not too distant from the cabbage family (Brassicaceae). 
Drumstick tree (Moringa oleifera) from Francisco Manuel Blanco's (1880-1883?) Flora de Filipinas, Public Domain.
There is an excellent explanation on why Moringa pterygosperma is a name that should no longer be used on a web page by Mark E. Olson, as part of the Moringa International Germplasm Collection's Moringa Blog. In the blog post the fascinating story of how the two moringa species were discovered, described, and how one name (Moringa pterygosperma) turned out to be the same as another name (Moringa oleifera). Unfortunately both names are still in use today. If you read all the way to the end (while passing by exquisite drawings from the old original botanical works), you will get to the conclusion by Mark E. Olson:
"The summary of this story is that Moringa pterygosperma is a superfluous name for Moringa oleifera. It is the result of an oversight of an ambitious 18th century botanist who was working himself to exhaustion in a race against blindness. Whatever the cause, there is no reason at all ever to use the name Moringa pterygosperma. "
So, this means that every label on a skincare product that currently lists Moringa pterygosperma as an ingredient, should change that scientific name to Moringa oleifera. This will take some time to change, but this is how scientific progress looks like in biodiversity and speciation studies.  And don't buy Moringa pterygosperma thinking it is a better product than something with Moringa oleifera - the two names are the same thing.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

The fate of Astragalus membranaceus to be decided

The scientific name of the Chinese medicinal plant called Chinese milk vetch, also called Radix Astragali, huang qi in Mandarin, or 黄芪 or 黄耆 in Chinese characters, will be decided this year. As explained in a previous blogpost, the name that has been in use for a long time, Astragalus membranaceus, is not available for use because it violates the rules of the Botanical Code.  This can be fixed if the botanical community accepts an exception to the rules for this particular case.  

A proposal has been submitted to conserve the name Astragalus membranaceus published by Bunge, which would make it available for this species again. The proposal will be voted on by the botanical community at the International Botanical Congress in China in Summer of 2017.

Here is the link to the blogpost with more information, with the update and details at the very end.  We will report back after the decision is made - so right now the scientific name is kind of in limbo and everybody is waiting for a decision.