mustardy mischief

“L” Is for “Lepidium”–And Also for “Loki”

Sigyn and I are back out at the herbarium, where the human female is deep “in the weeds.” I’m told that’s a Midgardian way of saying, “lost and floundering,” and that is definitely true, but in this case it is also botanically accurate.

She has reached the letter “L” in her slog through the mustard family. While that might seem like great progress, given that I only recently recorded her as dealing with the letter “D,” I feel obligated to point out that there is only one “E” genus, no “F”, no “G”, no “H”, a single species of “I”, and no “J” or “K”, so don’t give her too much credit.

Lepidium (Peppergrass) is the group occupying all of her functional brain cells at the moment. It’s a large genus, full of white-flowered, weedy plants with tiny little flowers and round, flat fruit. (Except for the ones that have yellow flowers or rounded fruit…) Some of the local species are easy to identify. L. didymum, which enjoys the delightful common name of Swine Wart Cress, can be told by its fruit, which look like wrinkly little balls and its repugnant odor. L. austrinum is woody at the base and quite hirsute. L. densiflorum usually has flowers with reduced petals or no petals at all and obovate fruit, while L. virginicum usually has well-developed petals and ovate to orbicular fruit. However, sometimes L. virginicum feels like having no petals, and L. densiflorum sees no problem with making fruits that are wider below the the middle than they are above. The only sure-fire way to tell those two apart is to cross-section a seed (about 0.5 mm across) and see how the little seedling leaves lie in relation to the tiny baby rootlet. I’ve yet to see the human female attempt such a dissection. I’m betting she can’t do it, or at least not without slicing her fingers.

As she did when she was working with the daisy family, she has ferreted out an expert in the group and is peppering him with questions. The poor fellow has already agreed to receive a loan of the troublesome Cardamine from last month, and now she is stockpiling Lepidium to torment him with. Sigyn, let’s see what she’s got so far.

There’s this specimen, which she has been staring at for a solid hour now. It was collected eighty-two years ago down where the Rio Grande meets the Gulf of Mexico.

Look at the woody root and lower stem. I bet that this is one of the perennial species. What do the fruit look like?

“Loki, look! They’re all veiny!”

Great Frigga’s Hairpins! You’re right! Nothing in Texas is supposed to have fruits that look like that, and it won’t go through the key at all. I think she’s going to to email photos to her tame cruciferist and see what he says. It’s zebras and horses again!

While we’re waiting, let’s see if there’s anything else interesting.

Sweet Sif on a Cracker! Look at this weirdo!

Everywhere there should be a little stalk with a flower or a fruit, there are leaves, and then lots and lots of sepals! Nothing here has petals, stamens, or fruit! It’s mounted on the same sheet as a normal-looking plant. Just what in Heimdall’s name is going on?

Oh. The human female says that sometimes plant will mutate or get a fungal infection or something and it will grow “all funny.” This certainly counts! This sort of physical derangement would be massively lethal in an animal, but plants don’t seem to mind such things. It’s having so much fun making extra sepals that it doesn’t even care that without fruit it will never pass on its genes.


The poor beleaguered (that word doesn’t look right any way I spell it) botanist responded to the human female and asked for some better photos. She sent them, and he wrote back to tell her that her veiny-fruited mystery is Lepidium strictum, a species which occurs naturally in California and Oregon and as a non-native in Chile. What it was doing in southernmost Texas in 1940 is anyone’s guess! In the meantime, the human female has found two more collections of the same species, from two different counties, both from the 1960s! Ehehehe! The expert just happens to be wrapping up a forty year monograph on this species, and now he will have to make a note about this! If the human female finds more sheets lurking elsewhere that indicate that it might still be down there, he’ll have to do some re-writing. For her part, the human female is going to get to publish a brief note about how this thing was, once upon a time, lurking half a continent away from where it ought to have been.

You may be wondering how I managed to make this mischief when the plants in question predate my showing up to make life difficult for the human female. That is a very good question! But may I remind you about a little trinket called the Tesseract?

I get around!

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A Most Brassicaceous Goose-chase

The human female is back at work on the BBBB (Big Book of Boring Botany) and has reached the “D” portion of the mustard family. Let’s see how she gets on with the little surprises I’ve lined up for her today.

Having dealt with Descurainia, she has turned her attention to Draba. These are usually small plants with a rosette of leaves at the bottom and little white flowers up top. Sorting the species out involves looking at the fruit shape, counting stem leaves, and looking closely at the hairs on various parts and seeing how many rays or branches each little hair has.

Definitely requires magnification.

You can see the human female’s scribble on this sheet:

She’s trying to justify her annotation, just on the extremely remote off-chance that someone else will ever care enough about these weeds to look at this sheet again and care what she thought.

Time for a wild goose chase!

She has come up with an identification for this sheet…

But when she looks in the database, the record for this accession number is not a Draba at all, it’s a mustard called Erysimum asperrimum, collected on the same date in the same county and by the same collector. So now she has to go and find that sheet and see if it was entered with the wrong number while this one was somehow not entered at all. (She has found a number of old sheets that were never computerized.)

Ehehehehe! She couldn’t find the other sheet in the collection, so maybe it doesn’t exist and the computer record is for the Draba sheet after all and was just put in with the wrong name. (Student workers have been known to just bring up a previous record and not edit it completely or correctly.) Before she changes anything, though, she is going to check whether the Draba was perhaps computerized with the wrong accession number. She’s doing a search for the collector’s field number, 36980.

Hmm. Looks like the collector has another specimen with the same collection number, something in another family in another county. Now she’s going to have to go find that specimen and make sure it wasn’t put in with the wrong field number.

And there it is! It’s a Bernardia (in the spurge family) from Val Verde County, and it has the exact same field number as the Draba. Old Victor L. Cory used the same number twice, which is a no-no. (At least he used them. His sometime-collecting-partner, H. B. Parks, frequently didn’t bother with a number at all.)

It’s getting later and later and more and more obfuscated. She was due home for dinner a while ago and has been scurrying from one end of the collection to the other for twenty minutes now, trying to sort this all out and leave for the day. Quick, woman! Make a decision!

Or else just leave it for now.

After all, I can always just add this mischief to what I have planned for tomorrow!

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“C” is for “Cardamine”—And Also for “Chaos”, Part I: That Which Is Hidden Will Be Made Manifest Eventually…If She’s Lucky

The human female is back at the herbarium and is now in the midst of the mustards that begin with “C“.

She has determined unequivocally that her previously-designated “Problem Child” specimen is, in fact, Cardamine bulbosa.

That is the LAST thing she will be sure of today!

There are a lot of Cardamine species (not as many as Arabis Boechera, but enough). Most of them have divided leaves and white flowers. Except, of course, for the ones that have pinkish or purple flowers and/or simple leaves.

The perennial species more or less sort themselves out neatly. It’s the little weedy annual ones I’m enjoying watching her struggle with. She’s peering at hairs under the microscope. Are there any? Multitudes or just a few? Long enough to be “hirsute”, or merely “pubescent”? And are the leaflets decurrent on the rachis or not? And while we’re at it, are the seeds in one row in each locule, or two?

She’s developing a decided squint, and I’m no longer sure that her eyes aren’t moving independently of one another…

And here’s my new favorite plant:


You see, there is a whole cluster of species that closely resemble one another, but some have straight stems, some have zig-zaggy stems, and some have stems which are only slightly ziggy. Or maybe zaggy. Some stand upright; some flop about a bit. Some have a basal rosette of leaves and some do not. A few years ago, some clever person (not the human female) figured out that the sort of atypical, floppy ones that appeared to be weeds from Asia did not actually belong to any of the named species. They’re their own thing, henceforth dubbed Cardamine occulta (for “hidden”, given that they were hiding in plain sight.)

Since the notion of C. occulta is a new one, pretty much all of the herbarium sheets of it everywhere are “hiding” under other names—such as C. debilis, which turns out not to be a good species at all. The human female doesn’t have any good references to go by, and there aren’t published keys that include it and differentiate it from all of its kindred. So is that sheet up there C. occulta or not? (And if not, is it C. flexuosa or C. pensylvanica?)

She feels that if she could just have one confidently identified C. occulta to use as a mental yardstick, she could get this mess sorted out. She has emailed one of the authors of the paper that described C. occulta to ask if he’d be willing to look at some scans or good photos. *I* have also emailed him, letting him know that if he answers her, she will no doubt pester him with a million further cruciferous questions, and advising him to route her missive straight to the trash folder.

I just love watching her hopeful face fall each day as she opens her inbox and sees that no help is forthcoming…

That “Problem Children” folder is filling fast.

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