Friday, November 12, 2010

Hard laurel (not)

I have spent most of the last two months deep in the Boraginaceae family.  Not only would I not want to live there, it is not even a nice place to visit.  The blocks of wood have been, well, blocks of wood, but the notations & alterations to the original records are fatiguing.

It is not unusual for the original index cards to have some things crossed out & other information clearly added later & I am fine with that.   By & large, botanical taxonomy works on an almost glacial timeline (until very recently of course, when that whole DNA thing came into being).    The edits I found in this family, though, they were, well, special.  For example, a complete sub-set originally noted as having been collected in Guatemala were updated to reflect collection in Cuba.  I understand not being quite sure if you are in Brazil or Suriname.  I can imagine collectors listening carefully for Portuguese v Dutch to determine which side of the border they were on.  But Guatemala or Cuba?  One is more than twice the size of the other & the smaller one is a group of islands.  The other is, while not entirely landlocked, certainly not to be confused with an island.

I don't care how drunk you got on/off the plane, at some point during your expedition you will be absolutely sure you are not in one or the other.  If, for example you come across ancient looking pyramids above the water, you are not in Cuba.  You could be many many places other than Guatemala, but Cuba absolutely would not be one of them.  If you climb to the highest point you can find & discover you are in a chain of mountains, again you are not in Cuba.  Guatemala has enough mountains (& pyramids) that you would have a hard time walking straight ahead in any direction for any amount of time without encountering one or the other, so if you do walk straight ahead for a day & sight neither, well, welcome to Cuba.  Or at least to welcome to not-Guatemala.

It seems perfect that confusion reigns here in Boraginaceae.  Because I am not a botanist, I don't even pretend to be one on this blog, when I start to work with a new family I try to find something familiar in it.  Some something to hang by brain on while I get to know the others.  For Boraginacea, up popped borage.  This was both good & bad, because while borage was already known to me, it is unlikely to appear in the wood collection; it can sport woody stems, but it is not widely recognized as a tree.  Or even a shrub.  & by "not widely" I mean "never".   You can see how it would help to first acquaint myself with some specimen I am likely to encounter, but borage was just so easy, what with being right there in the name Boraginaceae, & because it also happens to be the name of the garden gnome that shocked (Shocked!) the officials at last year's Chelsea Garden Show.  Once I made that connection, it was all over as far as finding one more suitable.

& so finding something familiar has not helped as much as it usually does, what with we-don't-know-what-country-we-are-in collectors & my memory latching on to banned lawn ornaments.  Confusion is looking endemic for this family: so far almost 1/2 the specimens that have common names recorded have "laurel" somewhere in them.  You might think, well that should make things easier, but it doesn't.  True laurels are found in the Laurel Family is Lauraceae, making the laurels of Boraginaceae impostors.  Or maybe they are just lost.

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