Reviews of so-called 'Taxonomic Revisions' of Genera

Of all the genera of flowering plants in the Himalaya, Primula generates the most interest, so I MUST review:

'The Genus Primula L. in India (A Taxonomic Revision)' Sandip Kumar Basak, Gaurgopal Maiti, Prabhat Kumar Hajra
(Bishen Singh Mahendra Pal Singh, 2014)


Unfortunately, my first impressions of this expensive book are highly unfavourable - to the extent I am obliged to advise against purchasing a copy!  It claims to be a 'taxonomic revision' yet is merely an account of the pressed specimens of this genus found in Indian herbaria and these were mostly collected in the 19th Century; this comes as no surprise.  For such inexperienced 'botanists' to attempt to properly revise such a complex genus as Primula was doomed to failure - i.e. totally unrealistic for even the most academically-able young Ph.D. student anywhere in the world with access to the best reference sources (which do not exist in Indian herbaria). In-depth field and cultivation studies are essential.  Few Indian botanists have the appetite for such plant exploration, especially under the arduous conditions of high altitude.  Of the supposed 100+ Primula species in India, far too many have never been seen or collected in the wild by Indian botanists - self-evidently this is an unsatisfactory situation.  As for cultivation, the majority of higher alpine species are quite a challenge to grow.  Most Indian botanic gardens are not located in suitable climatic conditions for growing Primulas and hardly any Indian botanists possess the horticultural training or hands-on practical skills to cultivate challenging species.  Without substantial input from abroad and a willingness to learn, the success rate of growing Primulas will be almost nil - along with the monumental failure of ex-situ conservation projects of Himalayan flora.  At present this largely consists of digging up supposedly 'rare & endangered' species from mountains, then dumping them in hot gardens thousands of feet lower - only for them to rapidly expire.  Considerable experience and expertise existed within P.Kohli & Co. (Established in 1928) in Kashmir but has been ignored (see: https://sites.google.com/a/shpa.org.uk/main/p-n-kohli-s-sugestions-to-the-indian-government).

India governments continuing discouragement of International collaboration, make it virtually impossible for their botanists to undertake much-needed satisfactory revisions.  Precious little has been achieved since Independence in 1947.  Working in "blissful isolation" inevitably means, no matter how bright (or not) nor hard-working (or not), they will not come close to a the 'International' standards.  I personally, have "bent-over-backwards", offering my help for free, on numerous occasions to Indian botanists but no interest has been shown.  If someone is willing to share any of their expertise with me, I jump at the chance.  Back in the mid-1980s I approached the then Director-General of the Botanical Survey of India, with a view to collaborating with Indian botanists to compile an up-to-date Flora for Ladakh; I was informed that such tasks were for Indian botanists, yet more than 30 years later, no sign of such a publication.  It was left to European botanists to produce a check-list in 2005 and draw attention to the serious shortcomings of check-lists prepared by Indian botanists, see: https://sites.google.com/a/shpa.org.uk/main/flora-of-ladakh

Two of only three plates of species photographed in the wild.....  They are of almost no use!

The authors of the above book clearly undertook minimal exploration of the genus in the field (providing no details of actual field-trips) and residing in India as they do, where few places enjoy the climate where Primulas can be grown combined with hardly anyone with the skills or dedication to cultivate the often challenging species, means they would have seen hardly any living specimens - which is a major disadvantage in understanding the genus.  Given that the book was published in 2014, there is no excuse for there being hardly any colour photos reproduced in this book (especially in light of the exorbitant price charged - which is nothing short of a rip-off) of individual species taken in the wild - other than the front cover, which presents a misleading impression of the likely contents, there are only 24 very small c. 5.5 x 4 cm images.  Almost all of these are downright awful photographically, being completely out-of-focus/ blurred - thus of no use whatsoever! By comparison, 'Flowers of the Himalaya', first published (in India) in 1983, contains 690 colour photos, mostly c. 6.5 x 10cm there are more (26) photos of Primula in this and the photos are in a totally different league, most taken at least 50 years ago! This, albeit often as a Concise version, is still available for purchase in India for a fraction of the cost of the Primula book!  How such images were viewed as acceptable, I am at a loss to explain? There are also 315 line drawings in 'Flowers of the Himalaya'.  These are of a higher standard than the drawings of herbarium specimens which accompany the entry for each Primula in this book - though the latter do show close-ups of floral parts and foliage. The artist is not acknowledged. Why? 

Two plates of type specimens - I certainly cannot see much detail!

As for the supposed 'photographs' of Type specimens for the 106 species of this genus claimed by the authors to be found in present-day India (nowhere near that number are actually included in this book), and those that are,  typically vary in size from c. 3.5 x 5.5cm to 5.5. x 8.5cm, occasionally 11.5 x 16cm, are mostly so small that they cannot be made out, whilst many appear more like poor black & white 'scans' from a scanner than actual colour photos taken by a digital camera. Overall, the photographic reproduction in this book is dreadful - not up to modern standards and far too small for such a costly book. I cannot explain why there has not been an outcry.  The botanical community in India must demand much better of its authors and publishers.


Primula reptans photographed with a modest digital camera on the Sinthan Pass in Kashmir - such images represent another world to those in the book being reviewed!   © Chris Chadwell 2012

The Foreword says that Taxonomic databases are critical for policy formulation on and planning for conservation measures and sustainable development.  Then it states that such databases (in India) are just not available and if available, are inadequate and they lack scientific accuracy.   With this I fully concur.  Sadly, this also applies to most floras and check-lists published since India's independence back in 1947...  With much regret, I am duty-bound to pronounce that this publication, far from being an "important contribution to India's Biodiversity Assessment" as claimed, is in fact littered with inaccurate and incorrect information.  I am obliged to judge that 'The Genus Primula L. in India... by Basak et al, is inadequate and lacks scientific accuracy.....which is precisely what was the shortcoming of previous so-called revisions. 

In the Preface the authors grandly claim that this "latest account of the species of Primula of India provides correct nomenclature, key for easy field level identification for one of the largest genera.....distribution, spread and confinement.... It is expected that any query on the Primula of India will be satisfied by this book".  I have no choice but to disagree in the strongest possible terms.  I have considerable experience of Primulas in the Himalaya and cultivation (unlike the authors) and have found it often difficult to identify which species is which, not just in the field but subsequently.  For such a large and variable genus, keys for 'easy' field level identification do not exist.  Since the authors are relying, almost exclusively on the examination of dried specimens in Indian herbaria, often more than a century old with scrappy and of varying quality 'Type' specimens only, rather than looking closely with a hand-lens at fresh material in the field, such a key inevitably will omit important characteristics observable in live plants!  In light of the minimum time the authors spent in the field, they cannot possibly have tried-out the key outside herbaria....   Another critical consideration is that I am certain that a proportion of the pressed specimens the authors observed in Indian herbaria would have been misidentified - I do have evidence to support this claim.  I must also stress that by not having access to high-quality close-ups (actually in focus) of Primulas photographed in the wild in India using today's digital cameras, the authors are missing out on a source of information which will, in time, transform taxonomic studies - provided India botanists become competent photographers, being willing & able to explore in mountainous areas, working methodical at altitude, often under adverse conditions, who can take AT LEAST 20-30 close-up images, in focus, of the important parts of EVERY colony/population of each species they come across.  They will need to know which characteristics of Primulas MUST be photographed to a high standard - not merely one or two general photos hastily snapped.  Indian botanists, have for decades been reluctant to explore for plants in out-of-the-way places, returning, at best, with scrappy pressed specimens with almost no field notes.  At present, few Indian botanists are competent photographers, thus there is a long way to go before the digital photos they take can replace quality pressed specimens in herbaria.


Primula reptans photographed by with a modest digital camera growing in abundance on the Sinthan Pass in Kashmir in 2012  © Chris Chadwell 2017

Let me move on to some examples of incorrect/false information/claims in this book, to support my strong criticism:

Primula reptans 'Kashmir Creeping Primula' - as for all the species of Primula in this book, there is an unnecessarily lengthy description of some of the dried, pressed specimens of it examined by the authors.  To my mind, these serve little purpose.  If someone like myself, with considerable expertise and experience have no use for the major part of this book, I cannot but wonder who can utilise it?  Over a period of more than 30 years studying Himalayan flora, including the genus Primula, I regularly come across examples in Indian botanical printed publications and now on-line, where 'quantity' is mistaken for 'quality'.  In the notes available from The Royal Botanic Garden, Kew, Herbarium when I was team-leader, just as I graduated, of the botanical project which collected pressed specimens in the Suru Valley for the University of Kashmir and Kew during the University of Southampton Ladakh Expedition, 1980, it advised that the objective should be to enrich rather than enlarge Kew's herbarium.  Such an approach must apply to all Indian botanists - the objective of all their collecting and studies, then publications, should be to improve upon what already exists - not add yet more articles, check-lists, floras or books, of questionable quality.  It is not the number of articles or books an academic publishes which matters but their quality.  And taxonomic 'revisions' must actually represent a full revision, not merely copying out-of-date information found in Hooker's 'Flora of British India', conveniently and erroneously, disregarding more up-to-date findings, just because this increases the number of supposed species in Indian territory - which to those ignorant of the realities of taxonomy, may sound impressive.  All too often, the claims by Indian botanists of species being "new to science" or "new to India" or "endangered" or the much-loved "critically endangered" are false........  Yes, I do have detailed evidence to back-up what I say.

I have not seen nor am I in a position to access the specimens seen by the authors in Indian herbaria, so cannot challenge the content of these lengthy descriptions of these specimens, except when serious doubts arise or very clear-cut mistakes have been made but nevertheless, bearing in mind the numerous errors I have come across within details of habitat, altitude, distribution etc., of Primula species I am familiar with in the Himalaya and British plus American herbaria, my confidence in the reliability of the descriptions is not high - though as said descriptions are probably not going to be used much, this probably does not matter that much.  Though anything which cannot be relied upon, has the potential to generate problems later on.  We live in a world where most writers blindly 'copy' content from other sources and "users" of botanical/taxonomic publications, "swollen" the content, unwisely having faith in both printed works and sources on the internet.  I advise much greater caution.  Identifying plants (reliably) is not the quick & simple task most people believe (or have been led to believe) it is.  The proliferation in countries such as the UK, of 'picture' books of flowers, gives the FALSE impression, one can casually flick through the pages, magically 'matching' with a single, rather small, general photo of a particular species which fails to show the diagnostic characteristics.  Yes, one can do this with a few especially distinctive plants but they are the exception. Just as the inexperienced CANNOT use simplistic keys to 'identify' with confidence.  Bearing in mind just how variable each species is, arriving at satisfactory keys is a challenging task. Using keys takes experience - assuming one actually wishes to be correct.

Primula reptans on the Rohtang - image scanned in from slide taken in the 1980s.

It is claimed that this species is a "rare taxon as appears from the herbarium material",  But since when can one accurately decide if a species is rare or not on the basis of specimens in a herbarium?   I can assure readers that one cannotThe only way is for extensive surveys to be undertaken by botanists with sufficient expertise to recognise species "in the field".  The authors go on to falsely suggest that "The inaccessible habitat may be the reason of its poor representation in herbaria.  According to number of collection of herbarium materials it is a rare taxon and may be due to inaccessible for exploration". Leaving aside the poor English,  I can firmly state that the habitat of Primula reptans is not inaccessible - in fact other than the modest physical effort of reaching 3900m or so, vast populations of this, running to tens of thousands each time, perhaps much greater, can easily be located. At least I, a foreigner, who only occasionally can fund visits to the Himalaya, know how to easily find this plant!  Any botanist is not required to scale steep cliffs to reach P.reptans, indeed the plant mostly inhabits flat to gentle-sloping ground - though populations do occur on rocks as well.  Nowadays, there are quite a number of passes accessible by road (all sorts of vehicles, incl. buses can negotiate mountain passes, though 4WDs are certainly best) which enjoy colonies - so anybody, can readily reach P.reptans To suggest it is rare or 'inaccessible' is preposterous. The obvious location to draw attention to is the Rohtang Pass in the Kulu Valley, on the border with Lahaul, visited by large crowds of tourists - so surely within the capabilities of professional botanists?  Back in the mid-1980s I led two botanical tours for a specialist UK travel company involving trekking in the Miyah Nullah, Lahoul, requiring crossing the Rohtang in a rudimentary hired bus.  On flat and gently-sloping ground at the pass itself, this Primula grew in large quantity - despite the heavy grazing.  Since then, hordes of Indian tourists, eager to catch their first glimpse of snow, have largely trampled it out of existence - compounded by the hooves of riding ponies, which are available during summer months.  Nevertheless, a reasonable quantity remains - though due to extreme damage caused by those tourists over decades, it can no longer be considered abundant here. 

Primula reptans on the Rohtang - image scanned in from slide taken in the 1980s.  © Chris Chadwell 2017

Stewart, in , 'An Annotated Catalogue of the Vascular Plants of Pakistan and Kashmir' (1972) recorded this species from 3900-4500m, providing several locations in Kashmir alone along with collections from Gilgit, Baltistan and Hazara.  'Flowers of the Himalaya' (Polunin & Stainton, 1984) record this from Pakistan to Central Nepal on rocks and stony slopes @ 3600-5500m.  It is a pity that this guide, with content of a very high standard, made a mistake with the photo supposedly of P.reptans on Plate 82 - it is in fact Primula minutissima!  There has long been confusion between several species belonging to the Section Minutissimae of the genus Primula which includes: P.reptans, P.minutissima, P.muscoides and P. primulina. I have my doubts about the records of P.reptans from high altitude in Central Nepal.

Ludlow, in 'The Primulas of Kashmir' (1951) did know how to distinguish between P.reptans and P.minutissima. He, correctly, said it was abundant in Kashmir.  I am certain that remains the case to this day.  Although his personal observations were mostly from the 1930s, records since and the fact that fewer people have ventured to its main habitat since then (due to unrest in Kashmir), mean it remains abundant both in Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh. It is entirely possible that population sizes have actually increased since pre-Indian Independence days.... The reality is that few Indian botanists have the appetite for botanical exploration in the Himalaya, meaning it and other plants in such places go under-recorded such as Saxifraga jacquemontiana.  I undertook two extensive expeditions (and a shorter one) in the Himalaya surrounding the Kashmir Valley in the 1980s, when I came across P.reptans in large quantity - this required treks of durations of a week or more and returned to Kashmir in 2012.  As few Indian botanists ever trek, it comes as no surprise they are not familiar with this species.  The most accessible area of mountains in Kashmir are those above Gulmarg, Aphawat top, the highest point, at some 3900m, is just high enough to support a population of this Primula; it is recorded from there in 'Plants of Gulmarg' (Naqshi et al, 1984).

In 2012 I was also able to botanize again in Himachal Pradesh, crossing (for the first time) the Sach Pass (by vehicle) - where, surprise, surprise, I found a healthy population of Primula reptans.

The south-side of the Sach Pass, Himachal Pradesh - colonies of Primula reptans are found on the north-side of the pass. © Chris Chadwell 2017

ALL the limited number of pressed specimens of this species examined by the authors in Indian herbaria were collected by foreigners - the most recent being from a 1952 Stainton, Sykes & Williams Expedition (albeit that much of the actual collecting would have been undertaken by Indian assistants trained by the likes of Ludlow & Sherriff), gathered in Nepal; the details given include: ca. 18500 ft. (ca. 6200m).  The conversion from feet to metres is clearly an error as at 6200m, it would constitute the HIGHEST FLOWERING PLANT EVER RECORDED (variously given as 6135 or 6180m).  Such errors are common-place in this book.

Primula heydei 'Heyde's Primula' - the authors falsely re-instate this species, incorrectly recognised by Watt and accepted within Volume 3 of Hooker's 'Flora of British India' in 1882.  They disregard Richards in 'Primula' (1993), despite saying that the characteristics separating P.heydei from P.minutissima are "very insignificant".  Within their account of P.minutissima, they also say, "Examination of several specimens of both species from field in life form is required" and yet this is precisely what Ludlow did back in the 1930s.  In his 'The Primulas of Kashmir' (1951) he points out that , "In 1882 Watt distinguished a plant as P.heydei on the grounds that it differed from P.minutissima in the possession of a scape of 2.5-7.5cm long....Since the scape in Primulas frequently elongates during the fruiting stage, this factor can hardly be regarded as a reliable one to distinguish P.heydei, and my own experience of these two plants in the field fully confirms this doubt...... A careful examination of herbarium material in the British Museum and Kew reveals intermediate stages in the development of the scape.... On the strength of this evidence, and in the absence of any other distinguishing feature, it would appear that the length of the scape is of no diagnostic value, and that P.heydei should now be reduced to P.minutissima.

Pressed specimens of what was thought to be Primula heydei in the herbarium of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor - note the long scape of this form in fruit. It is not uncommon for Primulas flowering-stalks to elongate at the fruiting stage.  You can see the typical stalkless flowers of P.minutissima below.

I endorse Ludlow's findings of more than 60 years prior to this books publication - yet this IMPORTANT work is not in the references of this book!  Presumably, they would no doubt disagree, even if they had referred to it.

Primula minutissima on the Pensi La, Zanskar, Ladakh - image scanned in from a slide taken in 1987


Examining the information about P.heydei in this book, I immediately noted that the authors, wrongly, claimed that the Type specimen was collected in China, though no actual locality was given.  At that time, Western Tibet, was within the territory of British India (now India), mostly taken to be what is now 'Ladakh' - though possibly Lahaul or Spiti.  None of these are or were part of Chinese territory.

Primula minutissima - the observations within this book are contradictory. Under the Notes for this species, the authors compare this with P.heydei stating "So it is better to maintain only one species - P.minutissima. Why don't they make their minds up?  And why did those who critical read the manuscript not point this out?  Another error which caught my eye, is the altitude given for the Rohtang pass of 5200m - it is in fact 3900m.  I have reached some 4500m above the Rohtang 'Top' but doubt very much any Indian botanist got a further 700m - which would involved scrambling up cliffs above 5000m, a task way beyond Sarin on 12th June 1962.  There is the little matter that such an elevation would have been "under snow" at that time!  These details are thus incorrect. Immediately before there is another record from the Rohtang (this is given as 4000m on 22nd July 1974 by Rau - this sounds OK to me).


Primula minutissima on the Rohtang Pass, Himachal Pradesh taken with a modest digital camera several years ago - what a pity such images are not to be found within this 'revision' of the genus Primula in India as they are sorely needed. © Chris Chadwell 2017

Yet it gets even worse.  There is a record from Uttarakhand (North Garwhal - the Kamet Expedition on 27th June 1972, without collector's name or number, at 6300m) - IF correct, would represent yet another HIGHEST EVER RECORD FOR A FLOWERING PLANT.  Perhaps there was a problem with the altimeter?
As for its altitudinal range, the authors, remarkably give 3000-6300m (unaware, repeatedly, that this would constitute the highest ever for any flowering plant).  The upper limit is 800m higher than any of my other sources I have (and I consider them much more reliable).  The lower limit being 600m higher than my other sources.  Then, and it keeps on getting worse - under Distribution, they say, "Apparently, rare and scattered" yet under habit (immediately above) they say "commonly found...".

Under 'Acknowledgements' they list a retired botanist for his careful reading of the manuscript.  It appears he did not do a very good job, if such glaring errors have not been noticed.

Primula reidii - according to this book this species is found in association with Rosa sp., Pedicularis sp., and Corydalis sp.  This has not been my experience in the NW Himalaya.  Perhaps it is the case in Nepal but to extrapolate further north-west along the Himalaya is misleading and shows a lack of understanding of plant association.

Primula elliptica - I question whether the specimen Ludlow & Sherriff 7861 drawn by the artist for this book is P.elliptica or perhaps the foliage has been poorly drawn, as the margins of the leaves do not match those of the species, with which I am familiar with in the wild, in herbaria and in photos.  Furthermore, this book claims this species grows in, "the cracks of the rock faces near water falls or in damp ground of high alpine meadows, moist rocky hill slopes and left bare by melting snow and occasionally on open very steep scree of very high altitude form occurring from 3344 to 5000m. I have seen several populations of this in Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh but never near water-falls nor on very steep scree at 5000m. 


Left-Hand Side:  Primula elliptica photographed in Kashmir  © Chris Chadwell 2012
Right-Hand Side:  Primula obtusifolia photographed in Kinnaur  © Claire Cockcroft 2011
  

In 'Notes' the authors say, "This delightful species is similar to Primula obtusifolia".  I strongly disagree - it looks nothing like this Primula! Completely different - as can readily be seen above.  Perhaps scrappy herbarium specimens, poorly dried and badly pressed, might look similar but more likely I would suggest there have been misidentifications......

Primula macrophylla complex - this is poorly covered.  How can one claim to have undertaken a 'revision' of a genus when a complex which has troubled botanists and horticulturists for more than a century, is simply ignored, nothing new is added.  Particularly when Professor Arve Elvebakk has recognised a separate species - Primula meeboldii found on high passes in Ladakh.  He also considers there is at least one other taxon present in Kashmir and bordering districts.  Having been shown the evidence in person, during a visit to Norway, I fully support his findings.

As for the details of habitat and specimens examined, the details are especially muddled and riddled with errors.  You will see my comments about inaccurate altitudinal records above 6000m, which IF they were correct, would constitute world records for flowering plants.  For Primula macrophylla var. macrophylla, the authors claim it is found to 6500m (about 21,500'), as a result of an error converting 18,000' to metres - which is c. 5500m, not 6500m.  It is obvious that the elevations, whether in feet or metres, have no meaning either to the authors or those checking the manuscript, who should, like me, be able to spot these numerous mistakes.  They also regularly mix-up locations from Jammu & Kashmir with those in Himachal Pradesh and vice-versa, which is sloppy and un-scientific.  Just to show how meaningless the figures often are, a record from Sikkim is given as only 1000' (obviously meant as 10,000').  The suggestion that any species inhabits rather dry situations, shows a complete lack of understanding of the habitat/ecological requirements of the genus.  Yes, a limited number of species are found on the Tibetan plateau and the desert-like borderlands of Western Tibet, but always in wet places - whether streamsides, along irrigation channels or whatever.  They might be dry when collected in the autumn months but there would have been ample flower of water earlier in the summer months.

There is a chapter on seed morphology with 173 images, allowing for the fact that they are of an inferior quality to those in British botanical publications and therefore of much less value to researchers, I cannot see that they are of much use to the vast majority of those with an interest in the genus Primula - unless you have access to a SEM (Scanning Electron Microscope)....  Why did the authors not compare the seed morphology of e.g. Primula minutissima and P.heydei, to see if this technology can help resolve whether the separation of the latter species is justified?

Before devoting time to such things, Indian botanists need to master the art of collection of quality pressed specimen, taking detailed accompanying field notes and capturing in-focus, close-up digital photos for EVERY specimen encountered in the field - and not just one or two general shots but typically a minimum of 20-30 images of a range of floral and vegetative characteristics.  I recommend they consult my Flowers of the North-West Himalaya - a virtual guide web-site: https://sites.google.com/a/shpa.org.uk/fowh/ for advice.  It is such basics which must improve to gain a better understanding of whatever genus is being 'revised' - and every genus in India needs an up-to-date revision, rather than relying upon the efforts of Hooker and his collaborators towards the 19th Century 'Flora of British India'.....  Fundamental change is required.  The Flora of India cannot be studied adequately when Indian botanists spend most of their time in offices or herbaria, declining to take advantage of the willingness of Western (and Eastern) specialists to assist in raising standards.  At present, Indian botany is IN DENIAL.







Comments