How It All Began

“As well as a flourishing library, the school by 1909 had a wood collection containing specimens of nearly all of Pennsylvania’s native trees and large shrubs. For each species, cross sections and radial and tangential sections had been prepared to show the gross appearance of the wood. The next step was the preservation of samples in alcohol and glycerin so that sections suitable for microscopic examination could be cut. These latter sections were to be especially useful in the study of timber physics (wood technology)." E.H. Thomas, “A History of the Pennsylvania State Forestry School, 1903 – 1929.” p. 67

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Digging Into a Name Validation

For those few of you who have an interest in this blog, you'll probably be interested in the minutae of things others could care less about...for instance, the detail of validating a scientific name when things don't go smoothly.

This morning I've run across a specimen card labeled "Dalbergia foliosa - Rosewood - Brazil". OK, looks pretty straightforward. But a check with The Plant List under Dalbergia gives me a moment of pause.

Yes, there is "Dalbergia foliosa (Benth.) A.M.Carvalho" listed as an Accepted Name. OK, nothing to see here, move along, right? Well, I should have...but to do this job right, you have to expend at least a minimal level of intellectual curiosity when something catches your eye.

And what caught my eye this time? Well, the entry right above Dalbergia foliosa is "Dalbergia foliolosa Benth.", also listed as an accepted name. Look closely...only two letters difference, and both with the same primary authority.

Now, this happens from time to time, and when it does, I always wonder..."Why would the authority give a name so similar to another species that it could be confused by a simple misspelling?" This is a relevant, and I believe, valid question from my experience...about one of every ten specimen records I've entered has a slight spelling variation from the Accepted Name. So when I see two Accepted species names, one foliosa, and the other foliolosa, from the same primary authority, and one with a secondary authority, I suspect that a typo or misspelling has been confirmed as a separate Accepted Species. And I don't know which one is correct, as in this case.

So, how do I investigate this question? Well, next I checked the database I've been using as my final reference, The Catalogue of Life. And what do I find? Accepted Names of both species. My suspicion is growing that this second name may in fact be a second, separate species.

Both of these sources cite the source of their listings as  the International Legume Database & Information Service. So I go to the site and try to access the records for Dalbergia. Unfortunately, all I get in response to my queries is a screen that says "404 Not Found. The resource requested could not be found on this server!" And that seems to be the response for every page of the site that I try to access. I've had this trouble before with the site, and hope that the site hasn't permanently gone down due to lack of funding, or lack of an adminstrator, or something like that. Because we have an awful lot of databases that use this database as their source.

So I dig into the contacts for the database, which seems to be one Richard White at Cardiff University. Unfortunately, an email to his listed address returned this message:

"Message not delivered
There was a problem delivering your message to See the technical details below, or try resending in a few minutes.
The response from the remote server was:
550 5.7.1 recipient <> unknown #292 (y9GFMO008515648400)"

So, at least for the time being, I'm going to have to make a decision without the benefit of the International Legume Database and Information Service. What else can I try?

Well, the huge collection of specimens at Kew Gardens in London has an online database of its specimens. So, if I can go there and see that they in fact have specimens of both D. foliosa and D. foliolosa, then I will trust that they are in fact different species.

Unfortunately, their collection of over 42,000 wood samples includes neither D. foliosa or D. foliolosa. However, their Herbarium collection of over 7 million specimens contains one herbarium voucher of D. foliosa...and this one voucher tells an interesting story.

If you examine the voucher in the link above, you'll see that the specimen was originally collected in 1854 as Ecastophyllum foliosum, with a synonym name of Ecastophyllum glaucam. The name was then updated to Dalbergia glauca in 1939, and confirmed as such in 1988...before being updated to Dalbergia foliosa (Benth.) A.M.Carvalho by Carvalho in 1997. Which is interesting...The Plant List shows D. glauca as a synonym for three species...D. foliosaD. ovata, and D. obtusifolia, depending on which authority you believe.

So, am I confirmed that my specimen record is in fact D. foliosa? True, Kew has a specimen with that label...that was only labeled as such after a couple name changes with the last change in 1997. But...they have 49 vouchered specimens of D. foliolosa!

And what do you know? The second of these that I happened to pull up was this one. And you'll notice that the original labeling of the specimen as collected in 1931 was Dalbergia foliosa! Collected in Brazil, where our Penn State specimen in question also came from.

So, what is my conclusion? Well, I suppose I'll stay with D. foliosa for now. Even though it looks suspiciously that the two species are the same, and that the D. foliosa in the Kew collection may possibly have been mislabeled, I don't have a direct basis for changing my label. So, Dalbergia foliosa it is. At least, until I can determine something different at the next stage, verification of the identy of the species from the wood sample. That may be even more interesting. One thing I know for certain...I'll be trying to acquire several specimens of each before I tackle that project. And talking with some Dalbergia experts, like my friend Mihaly Czako down in South Carolina. Maybe we can straighten this one out. If we do, I'll update this post.


  1. Chuck,

    I think the situation may be even more complicated than indicated above, if that be possible. This is the kind of situation about which learned academics write learned articles in learned journals.

    I don't have the resources here in the midst of the farmland and woods of the Driftless Area to go into all of this confusion, but have two comments:

    1. The real solution to the whole problem would be to definitively identify the herbarium voucher specimen from the tree that provided the wood specimen. I suspect from the above that there is no voucher, so all we have to do is to pray that the specimen was originally correctly identified and then laboriously trace down the currently correct name. As we know, very many early wood specimens (and many contemporary ones) were not vouchered, so we have to deal with the wood itself, which unfortunately often doesn't allow us to identify the wood below the level of genus or subgenus.
    2. It is unfortunate that the epithet "foliosa" ["a plant with many leaves"] is so similar to "foliolosa" ["a leaf with many leaflets"]. Bentham originally used both epithets, but since he had them in different genera, it wasn't a concern for him. In the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature, there is an example that "Senecio platensis" [from the Rio de la Plata in Argentina] is too close to "Senecio plattensis" [from the Platte River in the northern Great Plains of U.S.A.] so only one can be used. Unfortunately, "foliosa" and "foliolosa" are in that gray area where they are so close as to cause confusion, but not close enough to come under this rule in the Code, so both can be used.

    By the way, I've collected Dalbergia foliolosa in Bolivia. I definitely should try to get a wood specimen of it the next time I go down.

    Michael Nee
    Richland Center, Wisconsin

    1. Excellent points, Michael. You are correct, the specimen is not vouchered, so the odds are that absolute identification will probably not happen.

      Your comment on the "many leaves" vs. "many "leaflets" is a great clue that perhaps the species are in fact unique. The photo of the D. foliosa voucher does in fact look like individual leaves, not leaflets, although the specimen is small. All the D. foliolosa photos show definite leaflets. So Mr. Carvalho'd designation may in fact be correct and my decision to stick with D. foliosa justified.

  2. Willem Hurkmans replied...

    Hi Chuck... yes, misspelling is something that occurs. During my earlier days as an entomologist at Amsterdam University I came across specimens labelled Pipizella zeneggensis (in the family of hoverflies or Syrphidae). The real name is Pipizella zeneggenensis, named after the village of Zeneggen in Switzerland. And if someone who is not particularly familiar with the genus and/ or does not see that specimens that look very similar are differently labelled... it's not just a matter of reporting that 'Houston, we've got a problem...' the real problem is that these 'simple' misspellings can become rampant in literature and if they are dated back far enough they can cause real problems...


  3. I'm not knowledgeable in this field, but as one interested in wood and language, I am enjoying this conversation. Thanks, Chuck, for sharing your story.