wailing and gnaphing of teeth

How to Waste an Afternoon

I’ve written before about how the dusty old human female often spends hours at a time out at the dusty old herbarium, working with dusty old plant specimens.  She has two projects going on.  One is slowly making the herbarium’s database better, correcting errors, adding missing information, bringing the nomenclature up to date, and so forth.  (That’s what she says she’s doing, anyway.  I see a lot more YouTube than botany, some days.)

The other project is checking on distributions of various plants for the book on Texas botany she’s helping to write.  Does the local collection have a specimen of X from Y county?  Yes?  No?  If Yes, is it correctly identified?  If Yes and then No, what is the proper identification?  As you can imagine, this can be a very s l o w process, because each uncertain plant has to be correctly identified and its county compared to a master list of species occurrences, just in case it represents a new county for the map.

The process is made even slower by the fact that Midgardian science refuses to be a knowable, static thing.  On the contrary, I’m convinced that there are legions of plant nerds whose sole purpose in life is to constantly change the classification of things so that, at any given moment, whole swathes of the average herbarium consist of specimens with the wrong names on them.

Find a specimen.  Check the identification.  Check the name.

This furry gray one was originally collected as Gnaphalium falcatum.


That’s a good name, because it reminds me of wailing and gnaphing of teeth.

However, as you can see, someone has annotated the sheet.  If I understand the gobbledyspeak the human female was spouting, some geek at some point decided that Gnaphalium needed to be split up based on characters of something called “the pappus.”  I think that was it.  I could be wrong.  My eyes glazed over at that point and I was mentally counting my knives rather than really listening.  I think she said that this particular Gnaphalium is now in Gamochaeta.

“But, Loki,” I can hear  you saying.  “That annotation doesn’t say Gamochaeta falcata!  It says Gamochaeta antillana.”

Well-spotted!  This is something else I’ve arranged to slow the human female down.  I had a word with the person who wrote the latest treatment of these plants.  “I don’t care how or why or what,” I said, “but can you also split up what used to be Gnaphalium falcatum into two or three different things in such a way that other botanists will have to peer at every specimen under a microscope to sort them out?”  He was quite amenable to the bribe of several gold pieces, so now the human female is having to look at every single sheet of the former Gnaphalium falcatum to see how it should be placed.

Now she’s identified it, she has to make the correction in the database.  Let’s see.  This is sheet number 115267.


She’s looking up the record in the big spreadsheet….


Ehehehe!  I’m not sure if you can read that, but it says “Aristida adscencionis“.  That name belongs to a GRASS, a plant in an entirely CLASS.  Something is definitely NOT RIGHT.

So now she has to traipse across the giant warehouse that is the herbarium and rootle through the cabinet that houses Aristida adscensionis and see what is going on.  Are there two sheets with the same number?  Did someone mis-enter the number on the grass sheet?  She won’t know until she looks, and there are a LOT of Aristida adscencionis to look through.

(Later)  She didn’t find any such sheet among the grasses, so she has to assume that whoever entered this specimen in the database just copied the record before it and didn’t change all the information.  Good old 115267 only exists on this sheet, so now all she has to do is correct it in the database.

Well, that’s twenty minutes or so well spent!  She’s got a dozen or so folders full of Gnaphalium to get through.  I hope she packed a lunch!