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Harry Potter and the Ecuadorian flowers


A new species of the gentian family gets a Potteresque name

Harry Potter’s influence pervades even the science of plant taxonomy at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. Lena Struwe, assistant professor of ecology, evolution and natural resources at Rutgers’ Cook College – and a fan of the fictional young wizard – has shared in the discovery of a rare, new jungle plant that now bears a Potteresque name.

The new species, Macrocarpaea apparata, is described by Struwe and Jason Grant of the Université de Neuchâtel in Switzerland in the June 27 issue of Harvard Papers in Botany [8(1): 61-81, 2003]. The species name, apparata, is drawn from the term "to apparate" – as in apparition – a verb used throughout the book, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. The author, J.K. Rowling, uses it to refer to a wizard’s ability to disappear and reappear elsewhere instantaneously.

In an effort to conserve the world’s deteriorating biodiversity, plant taxonomists investigate and describe what is known to exist and go out in the field to look for new species. Struwe and Grant have been exploring the shrinking rain forests of South America, most recently the tropical, mountainous Andes region in southern Ecuador.

"Much of the original forest is now gone because trees have gone to lumber and vegetation has been burned to clear pastureland," said Struwe. "In Ecuador alone, a recent estimate is that 83 percent of all plant species are threatened with extinction, a much higher percentage than we previously thought."

The newly discovered plant belongs to the gentian family, whose members are known for their deep blue flowers. They are found on all continents except Antarctica in a wide variety of habitats and have been valued as herbal remedies since the dawn of recorded history. One particular genus, Macrocarpaea, is found predominantly in the mountainous rain forests of America, and it was these that in 2001 the two scientists sought in Ecuador.

"We drove south through misty mountains and lush vegetation, stopping at many places to examine the flora," said Struwe. "Suddenly we saw strange plants growing by the roadside. They had none of the flowers characteristic of gentians, but they did look like a Macrocarpaea – a kind never before seen."

Struwe explained that in order to confirm that it was a gentian, they needed to find a plant with flowers. As darkness approached, the rain-soaked botanists pursued their quarry and, on the verge of giving up, they found it. "At the very last moment, a tall flowering plant suddenly, almost magically appeared in front on us," she said. "It was a small tree, 12-15 feet tall, full with yellowish-white, bell-shaped flowers adapted to nocturnal pollination by bats and moths," added Grant.

The flowers emerged only as darkness fell, almost as an apparition. Thus, Struwe and Grant settled quickly on the species name, apparata.

Struwe had previously identified a new gentian genus in Brazil – Aripuana – and a dozen new gentian species, while Grant has more than 20 new species of Macrocarpaea to his credit. The research described in the June 27 paper was funded by the New York Botanical Garden, Rutgers University and the Université de Neuchâtel, Switzerland.

Joseph Blumberg | EurekAlert!
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