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See Inside August 2007

Floral Derangement

Some of these vegetables are minerals



FLYNN LARSEN

The late Harvard University paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould said that every species designation represents a theory about that organism—the species assignment is more than a mere naming; it is a classification of the organism within the context of all the other creeping, crawling, clinging and cavorting life on earth. As such, the discovery of a charismatic new species of animal or plant often piques the interest of both the scientific community and the lay public. Finding an entirely new genus is even more exciting. So it is somewhat shocking that a peer-reviewed publication announcing the discovery of a previously uncharacterized family of plants—an even higher taxonomic level than genus—has gone virtually unnoticed.

The shock intensifies when one considers the incredible ubiquity and great economic importance of this plant family, species of which are probably adorning your home, softening the ambience of your dentist’s waiting room or being plodded on by the rambling behemoths of your local football team.

Fortunately I received a copy of the manuscript describing the plant family in question from one Nat Bletter, the lead author of the paper, which appeared online recently—April 1, oddly enough—in the journal Ethnobotany Research and Applications. The journal article’s title says it all, albeit obtusely: “Artificae Plantae: The Taxonomy, Ecology, and Ethnobotany of the Simulacraceae.”

As the authors note, the family Simulacraceae represents more than a “technical curiosity”: it is “a genuine scientific conundrum.” Individuals appear to be virtually immortal, they easily form not just interspecies but intergeneric crosses, and they lack any genetic material. (Had Mendel chosen a species from this family for his genetics research, the rules and chemistry of heredity might remain unknown to this day, along with Mendel.) But despite previous disregard by qualified researchers, the plastic peonies, fabric forsythia and wax watermelon wedges of the Simulacraceae live—or, more accurately, exist—among us at every fern. I mean, turn.

Bletter and his co-authors describe 17 different genera of phony flora that include 86 species, samples of which are currently stored at New York City’s Foundation for Artificial Knowledge and Ethnobotany (what’s a four-letter word for “counterfeit”?), which does double duty as a hall closet.

Here is the journal article’s formal description of the new family in Latin, the official language of taxonomic designation. Although the Latin in this case is a bit porcine: “Simulacraceae—away andbray ewnay antplay amilyfay omposedcay ofway objectsway ademay ybay umanshay (How you doing so far, uddybay?) otay ook­lay ikelay anyway eciesspay inway ethay ingdomkay Antaeplay orway ancifulfay eciesspay avinghay omponentscay ofway away ivinglay antplay (I always thought it was antwork and grasshopperplay) eciesspay orway away ombinationcay ofway omponentscay omfray everalsay ivinglay antplay eciesspay utbay otnay ookinglay exactlyway ikelay anway extantway antplay.” Similar swiny Pliny language describes each genus. And the authors note that because there existed absolutely no previously published taxonomic research about this family, “we did not have to coerce any unpaid students to do any literature searches.”

In his spare time, Bletter is a graduate student at the International Plant Science Center at the New York Botanical Garden. He notes that his intensive research on the Simulacraceae stemmed from SCADS—severe chronic avoidance of dissertation syndrome. “We are not sure if SCADS is genetic or environmentally transmitted,” he says, “but perhaps that’s the subject of our next huge NIH-funded project.”

Simulacraceae include the genus Plasticus, fake plants “typically composed primarily of complex polymers of long-chain hydrocarbons, indicative of their origins in the petrochemical industries”; the genus Calciumcarbonatia, faux vegetation designed out of seashells; the genus Paraffinius, familiar examples of which are the dust-covered wax bananas, grapes and apples in the big bowl on Grandma’s kitchen table; and the genus Silicus, which includes the truly world-renowned collection of some 3,000 individual specimens of glass flowers, representing more than 830 real flower species, housed at Harvard’s Museum of Natural History. Now there’s some intelligent design.

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