Introduction

The reasoning behind this section of my web-site is to provide examples as evidence to support my contention that a significant proportion of plants in the Western Himalaya are being misidentified by local scientists and visitors from the West during holiday treks into these mountains.  In the latter case it may be of minimal consequence, though to claim to have seen species one has, published within articles in specialist horticultural society journals, contributes to widespread "misidentifications".  Increasingly, images appear on the internet and can be "googled", which leads to further confusion.  In recent months my attention has been drawn to 'The Plant List' (see: http://www.theplantlist.org/browse/A/-/) which I thoroughly recommend as a reference source.  However, it needs to be used with care.  One can look up genera of angiosperms, then each species listed within each genus.  Note that nomenclatural (name changes abound) as to taxonomic revisions, some of which are accepted, some are not, so it may not always be possible to readily check down a promising species you may think you have seen in the wild or cultivation. 

I then check if there are any images of specimens available which have been scanned in.  Be aware that it is not uncommon for Kew still to be using older names (synonyms) so no images are found or the specimens they have (running to millions) have not been scanned in.  Whilst inspecting such specimens is useful unfortunately the resolution is low, so one cannot "zoom in" to inspect details of the flowers.  Then one can check for any "google" images but beware, whether they are taken in the wild or cultivation, the identifications are not always correct, indeed often are not, confusing matters further.

'Flowers of the Himalaya' (Polunin & Stainton, 1984) and its 'Supplement' (which is less often purchased) appear standard references for both Westerners and indeed local botanists when attempting to identify the plants they come across in the Himalaya.  It has become clear to me that this book is often poorly used.  Firstly, it is a popular guide not a flora, covering only a fraction of the total flora of the region.  Secondly, few seem to actually read the written descriptions (which are only brief, so cannot be taken as authoritative) or details of geographic or altitudinal ranges or habitat.  These must be checked (complicated by many buying the 'Concise' version which contains less written content).  If the species you think you have seen in the Himalaya has never been recorded within 750km or 1000m higher or lower than where it was spotted or in a completely different habitat, double-check!  Thirdly and most importantly, despite 'conventional wisdom' that one can reliably identify a plant by taking only one or two photos of the said plant, not close-ups, then leafing through 'Flowers of the Himalaya' (or other guides) rapidly arriving at a "match" with one of the relatively small images in the book, this is NOT the case.   Yes, sometimes a plant species is distinctive enough and there are no similar species it could be mistaken for.  Often, though, it is IMPOSSIBLE to reliably name plants this way.  Sorry to SHATTER this illusion.  To correctly and reliably identify a plant one MUST be able to observe, in sufficient detail, the characteristic parts of the plant.  These vary from genus-to-genus.  Some genera are difficult others extremely difficult to identify accurately.  One requires skill and experience, which takes years, if not decades to accumulate.

Nowadays (and it was the case when I was at secondary school in the 1970s) students are not told the basics of how to identify plants.  Nor was I told how to when studying for a degree in botany degree.  The situation is even worse in the present day when plants are barely covered even in 'A' level Biology.   The world seems to consider they do not matter but without plants there are no animals!

Let me try to briefly explain.  Plants are traditionally identified using specimens which are taken, dried and pressed, then taken to a herbarium in one's country for identification by taxonomists comparing with correctly identified reference specimens stored in cabinets (arranged by family, genus, species not forgetting region of the world).  Clearly, visitors on holiday in the Himalaya do not gather pressed specimens, so at best one has photos to go by.  For a formal British expedition, pressed specimens from the Himalaya would be sent to Kew, the Natural History Museum in London or Edinburgh.  A botanist would be assigned the overall task of dealing with each set of specimens (this depends on the region of the world they originated from).  The specimens would be divided into the families they belonged two, with certain members of staff assigned particular families (they are likely to have specialist taxonomic knowledge of certain genera/families are related families).  As time and other duties permit, they will assign firstly assign a genus and then, where possible, a species to each dried specimen.  They will use their knowledge & expertise, examining closely the flowers (in some cases the specimen is at the fruiting stage) by eye, using a hand lens and if required a binocular microscope @ x20 or higher magnification. The identification to species level depends upon checking characteristics which can be seen on the pressed specimens - OFTEN they CANNOT be seen on photos.  Thus 'matching' a general shot taken of a plant in the Himalaya becomes a difficult to at times, IMPOSSIBLE task.

With the advent of digital cameras, one can now take lots of images of each plant encountered (when I visited the Himalaya in the days of slide film, one could not afford to take more than one or two shots per plant).  Provided one knows which parts of the plant need to be photographed and can take in-focus close-ups, it is possible, to reliably name many plants without specimens - though experience and skills are still required, along with sets of correctly identified reference photos.

ALL THIS MAY APPEAR RATHER DAUNTING BUT "NIL DESPERANDUM" - I offer a  FREE IDENTIFICATION SERVICE FOR PLANTS PHOTOGRAPHED IN THE HIMALAYA BY VISITORS OR LOCAL BOTANISTS.  I AM NORMALLY ABLE TO NAME THE MAJORITY OF IMAGES TO GENUS AND ALMOST ALL TO SPECIES BUT IN SOME CASES, EITHER THE PHOTOS DO NOT REVEAL SUFFICIENT DETAIL OR THE GENUS IS VERY DIFFICULT, REQUIRING FURTHER STUDY/REVISION.

My informal research over a period of more than 30 years, suggests that at least 50% of plants in cultivation in the West with names of species originating in the Himalaya as a whole, whether from seed exchanges, commercial seed sources, specialist nurseries and even some botanic garden Index semina, have been misidentified.  You are welcome to inquire how I can assert this.  I do have supporting evidence. 

I assert that it is IMPOSSIBLE to properly study and then meaningfully conserve the flora of the Himalaya in the wild (in situ) or cultivation (ex situ) unless it has been correctly and reliably identified in the first place - such that we accurately know which species are abundant and which are rare and/or endangered.  Currently, no accurate check-list, let alone a full flora exists for the Western Himalaya and what guides and other publications that do exist are not used properly.   Few have the necessary training or access to the necessary reference sources to be in a position to identify plants
species.

This section is divided into the following pages:









 
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