Ethnobotanical Studies

Example 1: A study in the Western Himalaya

The authors reproduced 12 photographs (the standard of most leaves a lot to be desired) along with a table listing 46 species of 'Ethno-botanical' plant species used as medicines by locals in the valley studied.  They state that regular collection trips were made to representative areas with different plant specimens photographed, collected, dried (they do not tell us if they were pressed, as unless this is done well, the end product can be of limited use), documented and then identified by comparing these with herbarium specimens with the help of various 'floras' for confirmation - though on checking the references given, I could tell most were only check-lists (of questionable quality) not proper floras at all, so were clearly inadequate. They do not provide reference numbers for each 'voucher' specimen  collected or inform us in which herbarium these specimens were deposited nor which herbaria they visited as part of their identification process.  No specific locations nor altitudes (which would have been of particular use) are given for each medicinal species.

I wish the authors had consulted me as to the CORRECT identification of their specimens, as from the photos they have published within the article I can state that at least half of these specimens, though having been assigned the correct genus, were misidentified as to which species!  Whilst others, though probably correctly 'identified', the nomenclature (names) used are out-of-date.  As for their full list, I am sceptical as to whether all those listed actually occur in the valley they surveyed; as to those species which would be expected to be found there, I cannot have confidence if ALL of these were correctly identified. Accurate and reliable identifications are ESSENTIAL within scientific publications - as others will use the information towards their studies, research and publications.  Mistakes and misidentifications are then likely to be repeated, over and over again.....

Let me begin by examining the photos within the article, providing when I have them, images of the correctly identified species for comparison purposes:
Fig. 1a - named as Bunium persicum; the photo is poor, out-of-focus, under-exposed; the image shows that it belongs to the correct family (Apiaceae - formerly Umbelliferae) but I have never knowingly come across this plant in the wild and am not familiar with its appearance.  This family often present difficulties identification-wise.  Commonly known as 'Black Caraway' also 'Black Cumin', its seeds are no doubt distinctive, as may well be the aroma and given its known distribution, it would not be a surprise to find this plant here. From the images I have seen of the similar B.bulbocastanum, the identification is probably correct.

Fig. 1b - named as Arnebia euchroma; I am familiar with this species from Ladakh but am unsure if it really grows in this valley, as it has only been recorded from drier areas. Whether or not this species occurs in this particular valley, the photo actually shows Arnebia benthamii - a very striking plant of alpine meadows, which I understood to be a well-known medicinal species. Both species are illustrated and described in 'Flowers of the Himalaya' (1984).

Arnebia benthamii on a Kashmir meadow - photographed by © Oleg Polunin

Fig. 1c - named as Inula racemosa; I know this plant well, having observed this being cultivated in Kashmir, Ladakh and Lahoul - whether it is grown by the hundred of thousand, if not more; the species photographed is certainly an Inula though definitely not I.racemosa at this point I am uncertain which one; the photo leaves a lot to be desired, failing to show detail of the flower-heads or clear view of the foliage - there are 2 or 3 species it could be.

Genuine Inula racemosa being cultivated at the Nehru Botanical Garden, Kashmir

Fig. 1d - named as Codonopsis rotundifolia; I do know this species, which it clearly is not - it is actually Codonopsis clematidea exhibiting its distinctive reflexed calyx lobes (sepals); I am most familiar with this erect herbaceous perenniak from irrigated land in Ladakh and Lahoul, where it is common; C.rotundifolia is a twiner amongst shrubs typically with greenish-white flowers veined with purple.

Fig. 1e - named as Onosma hispida; this specimen could be correctly identified, though the correct spelling is Onosma hispidum; I would need to view close-ups to be certain.

Fig. 1f - named as Rheum australe; the rhubarbs can be difficult to name with certainty but I am sure the image is not of R.australe, which has no records for Kashmir; as is invariably the case, it is much easier to decide what a plant is not, rather than what species it does belong to; my initial thought when viewing the photo was of R.tibeticum due to the pair of large leaves flat against the ground but I am unsure if the flowering spikes fit and this species has not be recorded from Kashmir; the common species in this area is R.webbianum, gregarious on alpine meadows and amongst dwarf junipers.

Fig. 2a - named as Aquilegia fragrans; definitely a 'columbine' but actually Aquilegia nivalis, typically on alpine slopes and amongst rocks and screes; A.fragrans is very common and very handsome on alpine meadows in Kashmir.  Both species are illustrated and described in 'Flowers of the Himalaya' (1984).

Genuine Aquilegia fragrans photographed in Kashmir

Fig. 2b - named as Aconitum heterophyllum; this is a difficult genus identification-wise, with a number of species which can be hard to tell apart - it is especially vital to recognise the correct species, given they are poisonous, with the alkaloid content varying considerably from species to species; this may well be Aconitum heterophyllum as the photo provided is not a close-up but this species seems distinctive enough.

Aconitum heterophyllum on a Kashmir meadow - photographed by © Oleg Polunin

Fig. 2c - this is named as Ephedra gerardiana; this is certainly a joint-pine, with this species being understood to be the common one along the Himalaya; however there are other species; it is a very difficult genus identification-wise; I will be profiling Himalayan Ephedras in the November issue of the 'Himalayan Plant Association' Journal (available to association members) and wonder if the species photographed in the Paddar Valley could be E.intermedia - though I am uncertain; it might come within Ephedra gerardiana.

Fig. 2d - this is named as Hyssopus officinalis; whilst I can just make out from the poor, out-of-focus image, that it is does seem to be a Hyssopus; only one species is recorded from the Pakistan which is now known as H.seravshanicus; H.officinalis is restricted to parts of Europe, North Africa and eastwards to Iran; so this is more a case of out-of-date nomenclature, rather than a misidentification.  I grew H.seravshanicus in the Kohli Memorial Himalayan Garden for a few years from seed supplied by Berlin Botanic Garden (which originated in Pakistan).

Fig. 2e - this is named as Morina longifolia; it is in fact Morina coulteriana, which is typically a yellow-flowered species (sometimes whitish); Stewart found it to be common on steep banks of mineral soil, whereas he observed M.longifolia to be common on alpine meadows. Both species are illustrated and described in 'Flowers of the Himalaya' (1984).

Morina longifolia photographed in Kashmir

Fig. 2f - this is correctly named as Picrorhiza kurrooa

Finally, I shall comment on Table 1 within the article

There are quite a number of the 46 species listed which I would have been sceptical about identification-wise, regardless of the evidence that half of the photos the authors published in this article having been misidentified; even those common species one automatically would expect to find in such a valley, just because they are on the list, does not guarantee these are the actual ones they observed/collected!  I would have assumed Aquilegia fragrans, Codonopsis rotundifolia and Morina longifolia to have been correct, had there been no photographic evidence to the contrary... I am uncertain about Saussurea costus, which is incessantly and falsely claimed to be 'Critically Endangered' (even listed of Schedule II of CITES) - so if this record is correct then is further evidence of a wider distribution than previous thought as Stewart does not mention this part of the Western Himalaya in its range? I also wonder about Geranium pratense (misspelt G.pretense - quite a number of genera and species names were misspelt in the article, which is sloppy to say the least)?  This genus is difficult identification-wise. The common species in the drier districts which border the valley they surveyed, in irrigated places, is G.himalayense, whilst the common species on meadows in Himachal Pradesh is G.wallichianum. Without a quality pressed specimen or good photos, I cannot speculate which species are found in this particular valley.  They also claim that Delphinium brunonianum grows in this valley which may well be the case at higher altitudes but what of those at medium or lower elevations? So as you can tell, a good deal of uncertainty exists in my mind.

I note that the article's authors assign several species out-of-date names - it seems that Hooker's 'Flora of British India' published in the 19th Century, remains a standard reference for many botanists and other scientists in related fields in this part of the world.  As one can imagine, this publication, though the best available at that time, is now woefully out-of-date.  Examples are:  Sedum ewersii which is now in a completely different genus - Hylotelephium ewersii; Taraxacum officinale - for decades it has been well-known that dandelions are exceedingly variable apomicts, so to clump everything under the old name, without, it seems, realising that at least 90 separate species were recorded from W.Pakistan & Kashmir by the 1970s, is remiss; their specimen(s) of Taraxacum should have been referred/sent to a specialist;   Thymus serphyllum (which should have been written with its subsp. quinquelocaris, as it is distinct from subspecies in other parts of the world) has now been recognised as a separate species, T.linearis.

As there is no reliable CHECK-LIST for the flora of the Western Himalaya, let alone a full FLORA, or ACCESSIBLE high-quality herbaria where the identifies of their collections could have been confirmed - perhaps with skilled staff providing DETERMINATIONS i.e. ACCURATE and RELIABLE identifications which could be trusted, then it is hardly surprising that their article and so many others published in journals in different parts of the world covering the flora of the Western Himalaya are LITTTERED with MISIDENTIFICATIONS.  This is an unsatisfactory situation.  The publishers ASSUME the plants described in the articles submitted are correctly identified.