So Much Mischief in One Small Genus–But For Once It’s (Mostly) Not Mine

The human female has traded the frustrations of ordering and riding herd on techs and grad students for the hair-pullingness of botanical scholarship. She is part of a team writing volume two of a book about the flora of East Texas. If it is anything like volume one, which she was also involved with, it will be hailed and lauded as a seminal work in the field abhorred for its sheer size and weight. There should be a warning on the frontispiece of tomes like this, an admonition to wear steel-toed shoes in case the book happens to fall afoul of gravity and plummet floorward.

At present, she is working her way through the draft manuscript on the largest, most contrary of the dicot family, the Asteraceae or Sunflower Family. There are a lot of them, their anatomy is fiddly and usually quite small, and the distinctions between species can be blurry at best.

For each genus, she has to check the description, test run the genus through the two keys to genera to make sure it comes out where it is supposed to, verify which species are in the region’s flora, and check the key to species, along with the supporting citations. For each species, she has to check the description and then see how the gazillions of specimens in the herbarium contribute to the stated season of bloom and the county dot maps that illustrate distribution.

As you may have guessed, it’s slow going. Today she’s working with the genus Hymenopappus, commonly known as wooly-white or old plainsman.

Accordingly, she has the genus pulled up in the herbarium database:

She has about a dozen very full folders of specimens out and is going through them, one by one, to make sure they’re correctly identified. In theory, it should be easy. One species has pink flowers, one has yellow, and the others have white. One prefers heavy clay and two like sand, with one known only from sands of a particular geological formation. Some have fat-lobed leaves and some have skinny-lobed leaves. Some have undivided lower leaves and some have very divided lower leaves. You’d think that would be enough to work with, wouldn’t you?

Ehehehee. No. I had nothing to do with it, but the pink and yellow pigments don’t always show up in pressed specimens. All the flowers have dried a sort of creamy beige. Many of the older specimens have no habitat information and thus no indication of soil type. Where the soil is mentioned, there’s no guarantee that the plant was growing on its preferred substrate and not being an opportunist somewhere else. A fair number don’t include the diagnostic lowermost leaves. Most have floral characters that are exactly in the overlap between measurement ranges. Some don’t even note which of Texas’ 254 counties they’re from.

Then there’s the nomenclatural fun surrounding some of the species. Locally, there is Hymenopappus artemisiifolius, with two varieties, var. artemisiifolius, which is widespread, and var riograndensis, which grows down in South Texas. We also have Hymenopappus scabiosaeus, also with two varieties, var. corymbosus, which is common, and var. scabiosaeus, which grows in Louisiana to the east and needs to be mentioned in case it takes it into its head to sneak over the border. So after checking the species ID, the human female has to deal with variety.

Now, here’s where the fun comes in: H. artemesiifolius used to be spelled “artemisiaefolilus“, so there are plants and records with the outdated spelling. In a book from the last century on the flora of the Southeast U.S., only H. artemisiifolilus was listed, so there are old specimens of H. scabiosaeus with the wrong name on the label. Later, other botanists combined the two species under H. scabiosaeus, so there are a LOT of specimens of H. artemisiifolius languishing under the wrong species name. There are old sheets marked H. corymbosus that need to be updated to one or another variety of H. scabiosaeus. There are a handful of old sheets labeled H. robustus, which is a synonym of H. flavescens, the yellow-flowered one, but the names can’t just be updated, the plants have to be keyed—and behold! All the ones in this collection are actually H. scabiosaeus. Another few have been identified as a species that doesn’t grow in Texas. Since the name on the label refers to a yellow-flowered species, one can only assume they belong to H. flavescens, the yellow-flowered kind that does grow here. There are older sheets of H. carrizoanus hiding in with other species, because H. carriozanus was only recently described.

Pick up a specimen. Assess the leaves. Look at the flower bits under the microscope. Compare to illustrations, known specimens, and online specimen photos. Consider the label data. Make a determination Correct the name on the sheet. Update the database. Over and over and over. At the end, go back a second time and see if anything needs a different ID, given that a hundred other specimens have now informed your mental image of the species. Refile, relabeling some folders that have been switched to


She has been at this for days. Slowly, she’s making sense of it. She’s been able to identify most of the specimens. There is a LOT of green in the database, indicating where the information has been updated, and because she’s a diligent rather anal-retentive worker, she has taken the time to enter the location and habitat data for specimens whose information wasn’t captured in previous databasing passes. Not to mention she’s found a good few that were never databased at all! And she’s “neatly” colored in a bunch of counties on the distribution maps:

So what is my part in all of this? I’ve been the one hiding the extension cord for the powerstrip for her computer, misplacing first her ruler than her pencil, kicking her ultra-fine red pen off the table and bending the nib, rolling the database up or down a row when she’s trying to enter data, hiding the stack of specimens that was right there, whispering in her ear that maybe the leaves are not quite divided enough for H. scabiosaeus and she should rekey it and all the other H. scabiosaeus, distracting her with funny/stupid things on the internet when she should be checking references, and suggesting that perhaps a nap would be good right about now.

I know *I* could use one!

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