Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Importance of Being Earnest Observant

When I was a teenager, my mom and I would often take drives out into the Apalachicola National Forest or the Lake Talquin State Forest nearby just to see what could be seen. As we ran across interesting plants that we had not seen before, we would consult our guidebooks, as well as the resident botanist and herbarium director at Florida State University, Dr. Loran Anderson (now retired). We had established a good rapport with him and I especially would report any new orchid finds. I was able to help him obtain a few orchid specimens for his herbarium that he did not have, as well as establish new records for several species not seen before in Leon County - Zeuxine strateumatica, Platanthera flava, and Platanthera ciliaris.

I also remember running across a population of Spiranthes that resembled S. praecox, but the habit and blooming time of these was off (about a month too early and in woodlands, as opposed to open, wet areas). I had brought this to Dr. Anderson's attention on occasion, but never really pursued the matter further. About a decade later, Paul Martin Brown described this species formally as Spiranthes sylvatica, or the Woodland Ladies' Tresses.

Drat.

Fast forward to a year or two ago. My son, Josh, and I were photographing Malaxis spicata in an area near Ocala, FL. While out there, Josh brought to my attention a plant that had variegated leaves. I remember reading in Paul Martin Brown's Wild Orchids of Florida about a variegated Malaxis, so I chalked it up to another find of this form. I did photograph it, as it appeared interesting. When I consulted the book back at home, I realized that he had described a variegated form of Malaxis unifolia, not M. spicata. In other words, this was a form that had not yet been formally introduced to science! Thankfully, I was able to correlate the gps trail that our Garmin unit had recorded with the time stamp of the photograph, so we had an approximate locality for the plant. Upon our return, after about an hour of searching for it, we relocated the plant, put a colored flag on it, and covered it with a wire hanging basket to protect it from deer and hog browse.

We brought this plant to Paul's attention, and he formally described the variegated form of this species in the North American Native Orchid Journal in the August 2009 edition as Malaxis spicata forma variegata P.M. Brown, P. & J. Subrahmanyam forma nov. . You can view this journal on-line at the following link:

http://culturesheet.org/_media/users:nanoj:nanoj_15_1_.pdf

And here is the photograph of this newly described form that we saw that day:

Malaxis spicata fma variegata P. M. Brown, P & J Subrahmanyam

So, while I had missed out on the opportunity to bring an entirely new species to science, which would be, admittedly, much cooler, I did have the opportunity to bring a newly described form of an existing species to science. And, as I continue to head out into the field to photograph orchid species, who knows what might still be out there to discover?

As a footnote, a colleague of mine was out photographing the variegated Malaxis and discovered a plant nearby completely lacking the orange color in the flowers...in other words, an albescent form of the species. This form was also described in the same article and named after his daughter Morgan as Malaxis spicata forma morganiae P. M. Brown.
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