Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Wildflowers #5 + taxonomy

glacier lilies and wasatch bluebells

Taraxacum officinale + Artemesia tridentata

18 March 1999, Great Western Trail, Mt. Timpanogos

            A velvety, blue-spotted mourning cloak flits across our path. I chased these as a child at my grandparents’ farm in Windsor, Colorado. Some childhood experiences never leave us.

            When I decided to move from Tennessee to Utah, the Dean of Vanderbilt’s School of Arts and Sciences asked if BYU, where I had been an undergraduate, was offering me more money. “No,” I said, “I miss the smell of sage.” In my case, at that point, for complex reasons, visceral memory trumped academic prestige.

Another insect flashes past, a brilliant scarlet-orange patch under its wings.

            “Box elder bug,” Sam says, “Boisea trivittata.” Named by Thomas Say, an American entomologist who was part of an expedition to the Rocky Mountains in 1819 and 1820. He was the first to classify and name the coyote and the lazuli bunting.

            Up the trail, a panzered lady bug splits its orange shell to reveal black wings. Small spiders dodge our tires. And when I think I have found the first tender green leaf on the still barren oakbrush, it turns out to be a lime-green stinkbug.

            At the top of the hill, Sam points to a tiny low plant with small red leaves: “Some plants use this red coloring to protect themselves from the bright sunlight that bleaches out their chlorophyl. It’s called anthocyanin, the same substance that, along with tannin, may make red wine good for the heart and that causes the red coloring in leaves in the fall.”

            “Thanks for the lecture,” I tell Sam, “Glad to be out with a botanist. Let me ask the expert a question. Last night I looked up death camus in both of my field guides to wildflowers. The one lists only meadow death camus, Zigadenus venenosus, and doesn’t mention any other variants. The other book describes mountain death-camus, Zigadenus elegans, and notes the existence and characteristics of Zigadenus gramineus, Zigadenus venenosus, and Zigadenus paniculatus. What’s the deal?”

            “You’re on to something interesting here,” Sam says. “You’ve discovered the war between the lumpers and the splitters. Your second guide was written by splitters and your first by lumpers. Lumpers see splitters as scientists who proliferate species designations endlessly on the basis of insubstantial differences. Splitters see lumpers as scientists who are too lazy to pay attention to detail.

            “Dandelions, for example, are a great source of tension between splitters and lumpers. They grow from Alaska to Patagonia and lumpers call all of them Taraxacum officinale. Because dandelions are self-fertilizing, mutations tend to stick and splitters distinguish hundreds of species. Check your guides and see what you find.”

            At home I open Carl Schreier’s A Field Guide to Wildflowers of the Rocky Mountains. The common dandelion, Taraxacum officinale, is listed as a single species. Craighead/Craighead/Davis’s Rocky Mountain Wildflowers, however, lists the names of three dandelions that occur in the Rockies, and then states that “close to 1000 species of Taraxacum have been described, but conservative botanists now recognize around 50.” Schreier is a lumper, Craighead and friends splitters. It’s that simple. Once Sam points it out.

            I bought these guides expecting scientific facts. Instead, I get judgments, assessments, interpretations built on biases. “Truth,” Nietzsche wrote, “is a mobile army of metaphors.” I’m fifty years old and have known this for decades. Now I know it again.

No comments: