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A Flower Returns from the Dead

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Remember this flower, and the post on the slide show of herbarium sheets at Duke I did a few weeks ago?

A short while after I posted it I received an astonishing letter about it from a man named John MacDougal. He wrote,

[I] was shocked to see your article on passionflowers in SciAmer because those specimens were collected by me, and each has a truly special inner personal story which all came flooding back. It was hard to concentrate on the rest of your story, though the Rynchospora that started Duke’s slide show is a truly beautiful specimen, and the close-up of the fern is… iconic.

Then he added with good humor

I thought you would enjoy seeing a photo of the flower before I killed it

And here it is:

You can even see the coiled tendrils so carefully preserved on the pressed specimen above.

According to MacDougal, this is a very rare passionflower originally discovered by botanist William Jameson and duly named Passiflora jamesonii. He mentioned that I should look up Volcán Mojando and Jameson to discover an interesting story about the species but my google-fu was not up to the task and I couldn’t find it (if anyone knows it and wants to share, please do!).

He continued on to point out that the flower is big, and its sex parts at the business end of the flower are asymmetric. That is, the pollen-making stamens (yellow things), or male parts, are all on one side of the flower. There’s a good reason for this: it helps deposit pollen specifically on the underchin of the flower’s hummingbird pollinators. Since flowers compete for pollen-porting real estate on their pollinators, this would be a way of selecting a uniform spot that is unlikely to be used by another flower.

But that asymmetry would be hard to tell from a pressed herbarium specimen, he noted, and there are many other things that cannot be guessed. For this species, no one knows the natural appearance or taste of the fruit, or even who eats it (and thereby “spreads” it seeds) in the wild. It’s a good reminder that although herbarium sheets are be good “manmade fossils”, they are not the final word on plants. For that, you must observe them growing in nature.

Where, unfortunately, MacDougal notes this flower may not last much longer. It lives at treeline, he noted, on the volcano where it grows, and is likely to be pushed up and out of existence by climate change.

In any case, it goes without saying I was delighted by his letter, the coincidence, and the chance to compare an herbarium sheet’s occupant to its appearance at its former day job. Thanks so much for sharing, John!

Jennifer Frazer About the Author: Jennifer Frazer is a AAAS Science Journalism Award-winning science writer. She has degrees in biology, plant pathology/mycology, and science writing, and has spent many happy hours studying life in situ. Follow on Twitter @JenniferFrazer.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Lou Jost 9:24 pm 11/12/2011

    As a botanist living in Ecuador, I can reassure you that your google-foo failure was not your fault. Your informant spelled Mojanda incorrectly. If you look up passiflora Mojanda you will have better luck.

    In the group I study the most, Lepanthes orchids, herbarium sheets frequently give erroneous location information, which often gets incorporated into the literature. For example, several type speicmens of Lepanthes species are attributed to the wrong province, because of the discoverer’s lack of familiarity with province boundaries. Botanists are human!

    Link to this

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