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Sitting on a whole new species

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emilyu | Jan 19, 2009 08:15 AM

In early August,  retired English professor Al Schneider was in the foothills of Lone Mesa State Park,  surveying rare native plants in the inhospitable Mancos shale barrens for the Colorado Natural Heritage Program. He was on his belly photographing the recently discovered species Physaria Pulvinata  when he realized he was crushing another lovely plant.

 The flower was "delicate, with masses of brilliant yellow flowers topping gracefully arching stems." It had escaped his notice at first, but on closer inspection he found it wasn't quite like any other plant he knew. Al consulted Weber and Whitman's guide to Colorado flora on the Western slope, following the key two times without a successful ID. He then called botanist Peggy Lyons over, and she couldn't find it either.

He referenced other botanical keys and emailed photos of the plant to several experts.  No one had seen the shrub before.  Finally,  he got a definitive answer from Colorado plant guru Bill Weber: "Your new Gutierrezia is beautiful."

Gutierrezia is the genus name for a group of plants which belong to the sunflower family, Asteraceae. Plants of this genus are often referred to as Snakeweeds, and different species can be found all over America, though they are concentrated in the West. The fact that Snakeweeds are so common may be why this new species was overlooked. To the untrained observer, it might be mistaken for an immature or stunted version of a well-known plant. 

But as President of the Southwest Chapter of the Colorado Native Plant Society, Al has developed an eye for fine distinctions. When asked how he had noticed the new plant, Al said, "How do we notice anything? It's a matter of a lot of experience, being in tune with what you're looking at, and being receptive. So many times we have eyes but we don't really see." 

It isn't hard to draw a connection between Al the English professor and Al the botanist, especially when you hear his passion for the Latin names of plants. "The trouble with common names," he says,  is that "ten different families of plant could share the same common name." People assign them willy-nilly, with no regard for relationships between plants. It gets confusing.

Cases in point — the Asteraceae family is commonly referred to as the aster, daisy, OR sunflower family. Another example is the "Skunk Cabbage," which in the eastern states is a foul-smelling, marsh-loving plant, with large purple and green mottled leaves. In the western states, "Skunk Cabbage" has large yellow leaves that curl, hoodlike, around a central spike. Both are from the family Araceae, so they share a common basic structure, but Eastern Skunk Cabbage is actually Symplocarpus foetidus, and  Western Skunk Cabbage  is Lysichiton americanus

All the confusion, Al argues, could be dispelled if everyone only learned the Latin names, which are universally understood. An alien from outer space, collecting specimens, will have a good sense of what to look for if you send her in search of Hyacinthoides non-scripta, but if you say "bluebell," well, the possibilities are endless. On the website he authors, Southwest Colorado Flowers,  Al writes, "My wife and I have special common names that we have assigned to a few plants and we do use these names occasionally — in a whisper only to each other."

Framed Gutierrezia elegansThis is Al's first discovery.  "I don't get that revved up or excited about things," Al said, his voice betraying irrepressible enthusiasm. The most important thing, he said, is that his find encourages people to go make their own discoveries.

His two daughters and granddaughters still rank higher on his list of life accomplishments, but framing the first recognized specimen of Gutierrezia elegans, named for its  graceful symmetry, was a joyful occasion.  

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