Friday, August 11, 2017

Tree of the Month: the Poison Nut Tree

Poison Nut Tree, Strychnos nux-vomica; artist unknown (BHL on Flickr).

It was Dr. William Roxburgh, botanist with the East India Company, who introduced me to the Poison Nut Tree. Actually, it was the beautiful illustration by his anonymous artist-assistant, now on Flickr. And to be honest, the chilling scientific name grabbed me first: Strychnos nux-vomica. That's strychnos as in strychnine (the poison’s name was derived from the plant’s), and nux-vomica for the deadly, nausea-inducing seeds (nuts, nux).

Roxburgh arrived in India in 1776, having been hired by the Company as a surgeon (physician). He also was a botanist, and it appears he did as much botanizing as doctoring. His dream job landed in his lap three years later, when the Company’s Madras botanist retired. Roxburgh gave up medicine, and moved to the coast of Coromandel, on the Bay of Bengal. It was a botanist’s paradise, with a diverse, fascinating, and—perhaps best of all—unknown flora.

The Company’s interest in the Coromandel coast was understandable. Areas rich in natural resources lay in close proximity, and the mouths of several rivers served as ports. Surprisingly, given how long Europeans had been in India, the flora was poorly known. It was hoped that species of value would be discovered—“such articles as may prove beneficial to the inhabitants as well as the natives of Great Britain, and which ultimately may tend to the extension of the national commerce and riches.”

Building on the work of his predecessor, Roxburg explored, collected plants of interest, and wrote descriptions that included features useful for identification.
“Leaves opposite, short petioled, round-oval, shining, smooth on both sides, entire, three-five-nerved, differing in size, from one and a half to four inches long, and from one to three broad. Stipules none. Flowers small, greenish white, collected on small terminal umbells …”
“Berry round, smooth, size of a pretty large apple, covered with a smooth somewhat hard shell, of a rich beautiful orange colour when ripe, filled with a soft jelly-like pulp. Seeds from two to five, immersed in the pulp of the berry.”

Roxburgh also noted native uses of plants.
“The wood of this tree is hard and durable, and is used for many purposes by the natives. It is exceedingly bitter, particularly that of the root, which is used to cure intermitting fevers, and the bites of venomous snakes (1) … The seeds are employed in the distillation of country spirits, to render them more intoxicating.”
This use of Strychnos seeds in alcoholic beverages is intriguing. True to its name, the Poison Nut Tree’s strychnine-laced seeds (nuts) are toxic. Even a single seed reveals its evil nature within minutes: racing heart, rapid breathing, convulsions, and muscular spasms with grotesque arching of the back and neck. (Contrary to the specific epithet, nux-vomica, nausea is rare.) Death almost always follows—through cardiac arrest, respiratory failure, multiple organ failure, or brain damage. The drama of death by strychnine has made it popular with murder-mystery writers, including Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle.
Strychnos seeds are rock-hard; unless crushed before consumption, they pass through intact (source).

Roxburg needed illustrations to go with his plant descriptions, so he hired native artists. In a sense, these artists were skilled botanical illustrators; plants, leaves, and flowers were common motifs in the exquisite patterns popular in Indian artwork. But left to their own devices, they produced illustrations in their own style—bold contrasting colors, plant parts appealingly arranged, and almost nothing to provide a sense of depth. Details important to botanists were often omitted when not critical to overall composition.
Floral decoration on tomb of Empress Noor Jahan, Taj Mahal (Wellcom Trust).
More realistic plant portraits were required, with shading and depth, and with all parts necessary for identification shown in detail. So the Indian artists were given training in proper botanical illustration. The result was what Richard Mabey (2015) called “cultural fusion … an exotic fusion of European precision and Mughal stylisation that revelled in the pure patterning of plants.” Critical botanical details were included, but in an appealing composition. This hybrid style is distinctive enough to have a name: Company Art.
Sappan, Caesalpinia sappan; artist unknown (BHL on Flickr).
Strychnos nux-vomica: Company Art (left) and a more traditional illustration, from Köhler’s Medizinal-Pflanzen, 1883 (source).

Roxburgh was a passionate botanist and hard worker. From 1791 through 1794, he shipped parcel after parcel of descriptions and illustrations to the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in London—500 species in all. From these, the distinguished botanist and President of the Royal Society, Sir Joseph Banks (2), selected 300 for publication.

Plants of the Coast of Coromandel was published over a period of 25 years, 1795–1819. It was a grand three-volume set, with detailed descriptions and hand-painted copper engravings—a full-page illustration for each of the 300 plant species. In the Preface, botanist Patrick Russell praised Roxburg’s dedication: “Such commendable zeal in the service has not passed unnoticed by the Court of Directors [of the East India Company], which has lately honoured him with a handsome present of botanical books, as well as with other marks of approbation.”

Russell also recognized the contributions of pioneering botanist John Gerard Koenig, “to whom Indian Botany stands so highly indebted.” But nowhere were the botanical illustrators acknowledged, nor even named. The only reference was this: “[Roxburgh] had retained a painter constantly employed in drawing plants …”

The size and lavishness of Plants of the Coast of Coromandel guaranteed it would be accessible only to the privileged—wealthy enthusiasts, and individuals associated with botanical gardens and other institutions. But fortunately, times have changed. Dr. Roxburg has joined the open access movement! Now, anyone with internet access can indulge themselves in Coromandel plants and elegant Company Art.
Flame of the Forest, Butea superba; artist unknown (BHL on Flickr).

In 2007, Plants of the Coast of Coromandel from the Missouri Botanical Garden’s Rare Books Collection was digitized, and added to the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL). Six years later, the illustrations were uploaded to Flickr. It was on Flickr that I met Dr. Roxburgh and the Poison Nut Tree, through my role as a tagger.

In building online collections, machines and software do the lion’s share of the work, but there are tasks that only humans can do. A machine can scan a page of text, which is then interpreted by optical character recognition software. Plant names can be flagged in the process. But illustrations are incomprehensible, and so the plants remain hidden and undiscoverable until tags are added, by a human. Only then will they show up in searches.

Most days I spend a little time, usually less than 30 minutes, adding tags for names and geographic information to illustrations by Roxburgh's anonymous artists, slowly progressing through the plants of the Coromandel coast. Gorgeous engravings of exotic plants more than make up for any tedium. The challenge of updating 18th-century nomenclature also keeps me from getting bored.
I started tagging because of its worthiness. I use online collections regularly—specimens, literature, images—so I know the value of tags. But soon there were other reasons to continue. I enjoy reading accounts of botanical exploration in the 18th and 19th centuries, and I love the exotic plants and delightful artwork.
Rosy Milkweed Vine, Oxystelma esculentum; artist unknown (BHL on Flickr).

The Biodiversity Heritage Library needs more taggers!! No experience required—taggers range from fledgling citizen scientists to professionals. The Flickr collections include many kinds of organisms, not just plants, so you can work on your favorites. Want to learn more? Check out this example, a persuasive post about the value of tagging, and the BHL Tagging Tutorial.


(1) Strychnos nux-vomica is recognized in alternative medicine circles as a treatment for many conditions, but most claims aren't supported by experimental evidence. However, one study found that whole-seed extract of S. nux-vomica—in low doses—effectively neutralizes venom from the viper Daboia russelii (in mice; Chatterjee et al. 2004).

(2) The first version of this post mistakenly assigned responsibility to Joseph Hooker.


Mabey, R. 2015. The Cabaret of Plants. WW Norton & Co.

Roxburgh, W. 1795-1819. Plants of the coast of Coromandel: selected from drawings and descriptions presented to the hon. court of directors of the East India Company. Accessed 7 Aug 2017.

Wikipedia. Strychnos nux-vomica, and Strychnine.; Accessed 7 Aug 2017.

This is my contribution to the August gathering of tree-followers kindly hosted by The Squirrelbasket.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Waylaid by Wildflowers

“The world would be a much better place if everyone was required to get down on the ground and look for tiny flowers—on a daily basis!”  (Mike N)

In late May, I drove Highway 773 through the Volcanic Hills in western Nevada, about 45 miles west of Tonopah. It was harsh but beautiful country, with colorful rocks dating to roughly 20 million years ago, back when Nevada was a truly hellacious place. Huge calderas erupted on a massive and terrifying scale. Viscous magma exploded from vents, and fiery sheets of ash and debris raced across the land, destroying everything for miles.

Intent on examining the remains of that horrifying time, I turned off on the first promising two-track, parked at the toe of a sparsely-vegetated (so I thought!) alluvial fan leading up to multi-colored outcrops, and started walking. But I didn’t get far. I was stopped by hundreds of flecks of color on the ground.

In between the shrubs, tiny plants were blooming. I suppose the show was lackluster compared with this year’s super bloom of the lower deserts—annuals so thick that they formed carpets of color. But I was impressed! It was such a surprise, and in some ways more rewarding. Only when I looked close did I see the beauty. The subdued display seemed fitting for the high desert, with its shorter growing season and harsh winters.
Click on image to see flecks of color (maybe).

I never made it to the volcanic rocks—spent a lot of time happily photographing flowers instead. Here are of some of the more common ones, all new to me. A humongous thanks to randomtruth at Nature of a Man for identifications … saved me from major struggles!

Many were true belly plants—little annuals growing so close to the ground that I had to lie on my belly to get a good look (for scale, see photo at top of post). The first to catch my eye was ground nama, Nama aretioides (Boraginaceae), which was super common. Up close it looked like a fairy’s flower arrangement—miniature bright pink flowers with yellow throats streaked red, and tidy clusters of hairy leaves.

Desert calico (Loeseliastrum matthewsii, Polemoniaceae) has really distinctive bilateral flowers. For some reason they reminded me of surprised faces, maybe because of their dark pink "raised eyebrows." I like the common name, but couldn’t find an explanation for it. Maybe the flowers are enough mottled or multicolored to qualify as calico.

Apparently Linanthus campanulatus (Polemoniaceae) goes only by the awkward common name of bellshape gilia, a literal translation of an earlier scientific name, Gilia campanulatus. Sand grains stick to its stems because of its glandular hairs.
Sticky stems.

I easily recognized this next plant as a cryptantha (Boraginaceae), maybe because of the hairs—glassy spikes like those of many of our cryptanthas. This is cushion cryptantha or cushion catseye (C. circumscissa). Flowers are super tiny, about 1/8 inch across (1-2 mm).

Signs of a belly-plant botanist.
Eventually I left the land of belly plants (above) and moved into a swale (below) where plants were denser and taller—must be (or have been) more water. These also were mostly annuals, just bigger.

The mentzelia (stickleaf) below was another plant I could recognize to genus, probably because of the pale stems and rough leaves. It may be Mentzelia dispersa or M. affinis (Loasaceae). According to experts, the two are almost impossible to tell apart based on appearance. They differ clearly only in habitat: “Verified populations of M. affinis have not been found above 1200 meters in desert habitats” (Flora of North America). The alluvial fan was at 1800 m (6000 ft), does that make this M. dispersa? Can we rely on such a simple criterion? Of course the name didn’t really matter—I enjoyed the plants just fine without it.

Desert or Esteve’s pincushion (Chaenactis stevioides, Asteraceae) is said to be “among the most abundant spring wildflowers in the higher Mojave Desert and southern Great Basin” (Flora of North America). The Volcanic Hills are in the southern Great Basin and this plant was indeed abundant. It grows through much of the American West.

I thought the scale buds (Anisocoma acaulis, Asteraceae) were especially photogenic. These are not to be confused with bud scales, which protect over-wintering buds. Scale bud is named for its distinctive patterned phyllaries (bracts), most obvious when the flower (head) is closed. It’s the only species in its genus, which is closely related to Malacothrix.
Obviously someone finds scale buds tasty—missing heads were common.

Fortunately I didn't ignore the shrubs. They too surprised me with something new. The alluvial fan was covered in greasewood (Sarcobatus vermiculatus, Sarcobataceae), a very familiar plant but not the kind of greasewood vegetation I know. I looked close just to be sure ... yep, greasewood. Succulent green leaves and sharp-tipped twigs make greasewood easy to recognize. The reddish structures are its distinctive winged seed pods.
Here in Wyoming, we say greasewood grows in valley bottoms where water is near the surface, usually on saline soil (1). But it appears to be doing just fine on alluvial fans in the Volcanic Hills.
Greasewood on alluvial fan; White Mountains on horizon.


(1) Knight et al. (2014, Mountains and Plains, the ecology of Wyoming landscapes, p. 167) mention there are a few stands of greasewood in foothills, calling them an “anomaly” … “as it is usually found where groundwater is near the surface on saline soils …” However, Waring (2011, A Natural History of the Intermountain West, p. 146) includes badlands and playa dunes, as well as saline bottoms, as greasewood habitat.


Two websites were especially helpful for verifying identifications and learning more about these plants. Foremost was the awesome Calflora (the Volcanic Hills are just 15 air miles east of California). Plants of West and Southwest USA was useful for selected species.