Friday, August 11, 2017

Tree of the Month: the Poison Nut Tree

Poison Nut Tree, Strychnos nux-vomica; artist unknown (BHL on Flickr).

It was Dr. William Roxburgh, botanist with the East India Company, who introduced me to the Poison Nut Tree. Actually, it was the beautiful illustration by his anonymous artist-assistant, now on Flickr. And to be honest, the chilling scientific name grabbed me first: Strychnos nux-vomica. That's strychnos as in strychnine (the poison’s name was derived from the plant’s), and nux-vomica for the deadly, nausea-inducing seeds (nuts, nux).

Roxburgh arrived in India in 1776, having been hired by the Company as a surgeon (physician). He also was a botanist, and it appears he did as much botanizing as doctoring. His dream job landed in his lap three years later, when the Company’s Madras botanist retired. Roxburgh gave up medicine, and moved to the coast of Coromandel, on the Bay of Bengal. It was a botanist’s paradise, with a diverse, fascinating, and—perhaps best of all—unknown flora.

The Company’s interest in the Coromandel coast was understandable. Areas rich in natural resources lay in close proximity, and the mouths of several rivers served as ports. Surprisingly, given how long Europeans had been in India, the flora was poorly known. It was hoped that species of value would be discovered—“such articles as may prove beneficial to the inhabitants as well as the natives of Great Britain, and which ultimately may tend to the extension of the national commerce and riches.”

Building on the work of his predecessor, Roxburg explored, collected plants of interest, and wrote descriptions that included features useful for identification.
“Leaves opposite, short petioled, round-oval, shining, smooth on both sides, entire, three-five-nerved, differing in size, from one and a half to four inches long, and from one to three broad. Stipules none. Flowers small, greenish white, collected on small terminal umbells …”
“Berry round, smooth, size of a pretty large apple, covered with a smooth somewhat hard shell, of a rich beautiful orange colour when ripe, filled with a soft jelly-like pulp. Seeds from two to five, immersed in the pulp of the berry.”

Roxburgh also noted native uses of plants.
“The wood of this tree is hard and durable, and is used for many purposes by the natives. It is exceedingly bitter, particularly that of the root, which is used to cure intermitting fevers, and the bites of venomous snakes (1) … The seeds are employed in the distillation of country spirits, to render them more intoxicating.”
This use of Strychnos seeds in alcoholic beverages is intriguing. True to its name, the Poison Nut Tree’s strychnine-laced seeds (nuts) are toxic. Even a single seed reveals its evil nature within minutes: racing heart, rapid breathing, convulsions, and muscular spasms with grotesque arching of the back and neck. (Contrary to the specific epithet, nux-vomica, nausea is rare.) Death almost always follows—through cardiac arrest, respiratory failure, multiple organ failure, or brain damage. The drama of death by strychnine has made it popular with murder-mystery writers, including Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle.
Strychnos seeds are rock-hard; unless crushed before consumption, they pass through intact (source).

Roxburg needed illustrations to go with his plant descriptions, so he hired native artists. In a sense, these artists were skilled botanical illustrators; plants, leaves, and flowers were common motifs in the exquisite patterns popular in Indian artwork. But left to their own devices, they produced illustrations in their own style—bold contrasting colors, plant parts appealingly arranged, and almost nothing to provide a sense of depth. Details important to botanists were often omitted when not critical to overall composition.
Floral decoration on tomb of Empress Noor Jahan, Taj Mahal (Wellcom Trust).
More realistic plant portraits were required, with shading and depth, and with all parts necessary for identification shown in detail. So the Indian artists were given training in proper botanical illustration. The result was what Richard Mabey (2015) called “cultural fusion … an exotic fusion of European precision and Mughal stylisation that revelled in the pure patterning of plants.” Critical botanical details were included, but in an appealing composition. This hybrid style is distinctive enough to have a name: Company Art.
Sappan, Caesalpinia sappan; artist unknown (BHL on Flickr).
Strychnos nux-vomica: Company Art (left) and a more traditional illustration, from Köhler’s Medizinal-Pflanzen, 1883 (source).

Roxburgh was a passionate botanist and hard worker. From 1791 through 1794, he shipped parcel after parcel of descriptions and illustrations to the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in London—500 species in all. From these, the distinguished botanist and President of the Royal Society, Sir Joseph Banks (2), selected 300 for publication.

Plants of the Coast of Coromandel was published over a period of 25 years, 1795–1819. It was a grand three-volume set, with detailed descriptions and hand-painted copper engravings—a full-page illustration for each of the 300 plant species. In the Preface, botanist Patrick Russell praised Roxburg’s dedication: “Such commendable zeal in the service has not passed unnoticed by the Court of Directors [of the East India Company], which has lately honoured him with a handsome present of botanical books, as well as with other marks of approbation.”

Russell also recognized the contributions of pioneering botanist John Gerard Koenig, “to whom Indian Botany stands so highly indebted.” But nowhere were the botanical illustrators acknowledged, nor even named. The only reference was this: “[Roxburgh] had retained a painter constantly employed in drawing plants …”

The size and lavishness of Plants of the Coast of Coromandel guaranteed it would be accessible only to the privileged—wealthy enthusiasts, and individuals associated with botanical gardens and other institutions. But fortunately, times have changed. Dr. Roxburg has joined the open access movement! Now, anyone with internet access can indulge themselves in Coromandel plants and elegant Company Art.
Flame of the Forest, Butea superba; artist unknown (BHL on Flickr).

In 2007, Plants of the Coast of Coromandel from the Missouri Botanical Garden’s Rare Books Collection was digitized, and added to the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL). Six years later, the illustrations were uploaded to Flickr. It was on Flickr that I met Dr. Roxburgh and the Poison Nut Tree, through my role as a tagger.

In building online collections, machines and software do the lion’s share of the work, but there are tasks that only humans can do. A machine can scan a page of text, which is then interpreted by optical character recognition software. Plant names can be flagged in the process. But illustrations are incomprehensible, and so the plants remain hidden and undiscoverable until tags are added, by a human. Only then will they show up in searches.

Most days I spend a little time, usually less than 30 minutes, adding tags for names and geographic information to illustrations by Roxburgh's anonymous artists, slowly progressing through the plants of the Coromandel coast. Gorgeous engravings of exotic plants more than make up for any tedium. The challenge of updating 18th-century nomenclature also keeps me from getting bored.
I started tagging because of its worthiness. I use online collections regularly—specimens, literature, images—so I know the value of tags. But soon there were other reasons to continue. I enjoy reading accounts of botanical exploration in the 18th and 19th centuries, and I love the exotic plants and delightful artwork.
Rosy Milkweed Vine, Oxystelma esculentum; artist unknown (BHL on Flickr).

The Biodiversity Heritage Library needs more taggers!! No experience required—taggers range from fledgling citizen scientists to professionals. The Flickr collections include many kinds of organisms, not just plants, so you can work on your favorites. Want to learn more? Check out this example, a persuasive post about the value of tagging, and the BHL Tagging Tutorial.


(1) Strychnos nux-vomica is recognized in alternative medicine circles as a treatment for many conditions, but most claims aren't supported by experimental evidence. However, one study found that whole-seed extract of S. nux-vomica—in low doses—effectively neutralizes venom from the viper Daboia russelii (in mice; Chatterjee et al. 2004).

(2) The first version of this post mistakenly assigned responsibility to Joseph Hooker.


Mabey, R. 2015. The Cabaret of Plants. WW Norton & Co.

Roxburgh, W. 1795-1819. Plants of the coast of Coromandel: selected from drawings and descriptions presented to the hon. court of directors of the East India Company. Accessed 7 Aug 2017.

Wikipedia. Strychnos nux-vomica, and Strychnine.; Accessed 7 Aug 2017.

This is my contribution to the August gathering of tree-followers kindly hosted by The Squirrelbasket.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Waylaid by Wildflowers

“The world would be a much better place if everyone was required to get down on the ground and look for tiny flowers—on a daily basis!”  (Mike N)

In late May, I drove Highway 773 through the Volcanic Hills in western Nevada, about 45 miles west of Tonopah. It was harsh but beautiful country, with colorful rocks dating to roughly 20 million years ago, back when Nevada was a truly hellacious place. Huge calderas erupted on a massive and terrifying scale. Viscous magma exploded from vents, and fiery sheets of ash and debris raced across the land, destroying everything for miles.

Intent on examining the remains of that horrifying time, I turned off on the first promising two-track, parked at the toe of a sparsely-vegetated (so I thought!) alluvial fan leading up to multi-colored outcrops, and started walking. But I didn’t get far. I was stopped by hundreds of flecks of color on the ground.

In between the shrubs, tiny plants were blooming. I suppose the show was lackluster compared with this year’s super bloom of the lower deserts—annuals so thick that they formed carpets of color. But I was impressed! It was such a surprise, and in some ways more rewarding. Only when I looked close did I see the beauty. The subdued display seemed fitting for the high desert, with its shorter growing season and harsh winters.
Click on image to see flecks of color (maybe).

I never made it to the volcanic rocks—spent a lot of time happily photographing flowers instead. Here are of some of the more common ones, all new to me. A humongous thanks to randomtruth at Nature of a Man for identifications … saved me from major struggles!

Many were true belly plants—little annuals growing so close to the ground that I had to lie on my belly to get a good look (for scale, see photo at top of post). The first to catch my eye was ground nama, Nama aretioides (Boraginaceae), which was super common. Up close it looked like a fairy’s flower arrangement—miniature bright pink flowers with yellow throats streaked red, and tidy clusters of hairy leaves.

Desert calico (Loeseliastrum matthewsii, Polemoniaceae) has really distinctive bilateral flowers. For some reason they reminded me of surprised faces, maybe because of their dark pink "raised eyebrows." I like the common name, but couldn’t find an explanation for it. Maybe the flowers are enough mottled or multicolored to qualify as calico.

Apparently Linanthus campanulatus (Polemoniaceae) goes only by the awkward common name of bellshape gilia, a literal translation of an earlier scientific name, Gilia campanulatus. Sand grains stick to its stems because of its glandular hairs.
Sticky stems.

I easily recognized this next plant as a cryptantha (Boraginaceae), maybe because of the hairs—glassy spikes like those of many of our cryptanthas. This is cushion cryptantha or cushion catseye (C. circumscissa). Flowers are super tiny, about 1/8 inch across (1-2 mm).

Signs of a belly-plant botanist.
Eventually I left the land of belly plants (above) and moved into a swale (below) where plants were denser and taller—must be (or have been) more water. These also were mostly annuals, just bigger.

The mentzelia (stickleaf) below was another plant I could recognize to genus, probably because of the pale stems and rough leaves. It may be Mentzelia dispersa or M. affinis (Loasaceae). According to experts, the two are almost impossible to tell apart based on appearance. They differ clearly only in habitat: “Verified populations of M. affinis have not been found above 1200 meters in desert habitats” (Flora of North America). The alluvial fan was at 1800 m (6000 ft), does that make this M. dispersa? Can we rely on such a simple criterion? Of course the name didn’t really matter—I enjoyed the plants just fine without it.

Desert or Esteve’s pincushion (Chaenactis stevioides, Asteraceae) is said to be “among the most abundant spring wildflowers in the higher Mojave Desert and southern Great Basin” (Flora of North America). The Volcanic Hills are in the southern Great Basin and this plant was indeed abundant. It grows through much of the American West.

I thought the scale buds (Anisocoma acaulis, Asteraceae) were especially photogenic. These are not to be confused with bud scales, which protect over-wintering buds. Scale bud is named for its distinctive patterned phyllaries (bracts), most obvious when the flower (head) is closed. It’s the only species in its genus, which is closely related to Malacothrix.
Obviously someone finds scale buds tasty—missing heads were common.

Fortunately I didn't ignore the shrubs. They too surprised me with something new. The alluvial fan was covered in greasewood (Sarcobatus vermiculatus, Sarcobataceae), a very familiar plant but not the kind of greasewood vegetation I know. I looked close just to be sure ... yep, greasewood. Succulent green leaves and sharp-tipped twigs make greasewood easy to recognize. The reddish structures are its distinctive winged seed pods.
Here in Wyoming, we say greasewood grows in valley bottoms where water is near the surface, usually on saline soil (1). But it appears to be doing just fine on alluvial fans in the Volcanic Hills.
Greasewood on alluvial fan; White Mountains on horizon.


(1) Knight et al. (2014, Mountains and Plains, the ecology of Wyoming landscapes, p. 167) mention there are a few stands of greasewood in foothills, calling them an “anomaly” … “as it is usually found where groundwater is near the surface on saline soils …” However, Waring (2011, A Natural History of the Intermountain West, p. 146) includes badlands and playa dunes, as well as saline bottoms, as greasewood habitat.


Two websites were especially helpful for verifying identifications and learning more about these plants. Foremost was the awesome Calflora (the Volcanic Hills are just 15 air miles east of California). Plants of West and Southwest USA was useful for selected species.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Silent Stones of the Dry Cimarron

On a cool sunny day in May, I drove New Mexico State Road 456 down the valley of the evocative Dry Cimarron River. For hours I saw no one, aside from ghostly travelers conjured up by “Cimarron”—dusty men on wild-eyed horses, traders with heavily-loaded mules, armed banditos lurking behind the rocks, and gaunt men of God driven by the other-worldly light in their eyes. But they didn’t notice me, never stopped. Only when I parked near a contorted sandstone outcrop was my solitude interrupted, by a brand new white Cadillac with Texas plates. “Ya’all need help?” “No, just trying to understand these rocks  but they aren't saying much.” The older couple looked suspicious so I added “I’m a geologist” (1). They smiled and drove off.

Pillars of sandstone lie scattered—in no obvious pattern—across the valley of the Dry Cimarron. Baldwin and Muehlberger (1959) mapped 170; counting those in nearby Oklahoma and Colorado, there may be close to 200 in all. Height ranges from 20 to 70 feet, diameter from 10 to 300. Shafts dug nearby revealed that pillars extend beneath the surface, at least 350 feet in one case (Parker 1933).
There's a red pillar in the center of the photo, in a cholla field; close-up below.
Red sandstone plugs below rimrock.
There are some clues (italicized) as to how these outcrops came to be. The sandstone shows no horizontal stratification. The sand grains match those of sandstone layers in the Triassic Dockum group (2), specifically the Baldy Hill formation (Baldwin and Muehlberger 1959) which is 400-1000 feet underground. Often the sand is mixed with angular blocks of country rock. The pillars are (always?) surrounded by ring fractures (Muehlberger et al. 2005), and many are associated with enriched mineral deposits (Parker 1933). The few relevant sources I found call these outcrops clastic plugs—“clastic” because they contain fragments of country rock, and “plugs” because they developed underground in a fashion similar to volcanic plugs. In other words, they’re intrusive (3).
Parker 1933 (modified). Red line indicates timing, not physical position. The Baldy Hill formation (Dockum group) probably supplied sand; country rock clasts are mainly Sloan Canyon and Sheep Pen sandstones.

It’s thought that the plugs formed when liquified sand moved hundreds of feet up through overlying rock and then stopped before reaching the surface, where it solidified into sandstone. When the Dry Cimarron cut its valley millions of years later, the plugs were left standing above the floor. Apparently they're harder than surrounding rocks, probably due to mineralization. Parker found that 50 of the 138 plugs he studied showed distinct mineralization. Several have been worked for copper on a small scale.
Note mining remains on right.
No one knows why or how the buried sand become liquified, nor how it was able to move up through so much rock. Parker (1933) suggested that earthquakes associated with faulting mobilized the sand, and fractured the overlying rock—creating paths and adding fragments of country rock. Liquifaction of sand by earthquakes has been well-documented elsewhere, and Parker’s conclusion is supported by the complex structure of the area, with many minor folds and faults. Localized post-Triassic folding could have fractured rocks sufficiently to allow sand to move. Other possible explanations include explosive volcanism, and buildup of fluid pressure in underlying sand, fracturing the rocks above.

Clastic dikes occur in the Dry Cimarron valley too, but they don’t stand above the surface so aren’t obvious like the plugs. Fortunately, the builders of State Road 456 kindly cut through one. If you stop on the hill just east of Milepost 56, you too can get up close and personal with the Silent Stones of the Dry Cimarron (4).
No one explained why the intrusions are red. Maybe it's due to hematite, known to be present in some, or the red Triassic rocks they passed through.
Scarlet Intrusion in a Somber Land (4)

My tour followed Trip 1-B in High Plains of Northeastern New Mexico (Muehlberger et al. 2005). The Dry Cimarron valley is mostly privately-owned, so features must be viewed from the road. But the traffic's not heavy. Most of the time I gawked undisturbed.


(1) I may have been stretching the truth. If we define ourselves by our professions, then I’m a botanist.

(2) Lucas et al. (1987) do not consider Triassic rocks of the Dry Cimarron area to be equivalent to the Dockum group in Texas.

(3) By definition intrusions are igneous rocks, formed from magma. The guidebook explained away the contradiction: “intrusive in a mechanical sense—in that soft sediment can intrude upward into overlying strata.” Intrusive sandstone isn’t unique to the Dry Cimarron valley; perhaps intrusion should be defined more broadly.

(4) Thanks to VMD for sharing the handy Random Western Novel Title Generator.


Lucas, SG, Hunt, AP, and Hayden, SN. 1987. The Triassic system in the Dry Cimarron valley, New Mexico in Northeastern New Mexico, New Mexico Geological Society 38th Annual Fall Field Conference Guidebook. pp. 97-117. 

Muehlberger, WR, Muehlberger, SJ, and Price, LG. 2005. High Plains of northeastern New Mexico, a guide to geology and culture. NM Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources.

Parker, BH. 1933. Clastic plugs and dikes of the Cimarron Valley area of Union County, New Mexico. Journal of Geology 41: 38-51 (

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Visiting an Old Tree Friend

Five years ago, I came across a blog post about a young sycamore (maple in the USA) emerging from a street drain! It was discovered by Lucy Corrander, a member of a loose-knit group of tree-followers. Lucy informally “led” the group by periodically listing recent tree-following posts. Anticipating tree camaraderie, I decided to follow a limber pine (Pinus flexilis). Like Lucy’s sycamore, it started life in a dark out-of-the-way place—a five-foot-deep crevice in a granite outcrop. That must have been many hundreds of years ago, judging by its situation and size.
Sycamore (maple) emerging from its dark wet home in 2012. Lucy reports it’s still growing there!
Limber pine emerging from a granite crevice near Blair Picnic Area in the southern Laramie Mountains.

There were enough tree-followers that Lucy organized monthly gatherings facilitated by Mister Linky, now hosted by The Squirrelbasket. In the years since, I’ve followed a cottonwood, a willow and a serviceberry—always interesting and fun.
Consider joining us!
Though there’s no obligation, I’ve mostly been diligent in my monthly reporting … until this year. That’s because I decided to follow a Powell palmetto, which has been extinct for millions of years. The beautiful fossilized frond in a hallway in the Geology building was irresistible. But I soon ran out of palm and fossil stories, and work and weather have kept me from visiting its lithified habitat on the other side of Wyoming. In the meantime, I’ve wandered from tree to tree. This month I visited my old friend, the limber pine.
From the approach, it hardly looks impressive—half dead and leaning severely. But up close, it’s spectacular! What character!! I like to look at the big scarred tree leaning against the rock and imagine its early years, back when it was a slender youngster living down where the sun rarely shone and snow melted late each spring. It couldn’t have grown more than a minuscule amount each year!
When the sapling reached the rim of the crevice, did it experience a growth spurt? Maybe relatively-speaking. The growing season is short (8000 feet elevation), though being evergreen, a limber pine will photosynthesize in winter if there's a “warm” day.

Surely the Wyoming wind blew the supple young tree against the rock on a regular basis. Maybe that’s why there’s a large bark-less scar where it meets the crevice rim …
… or maybe not. On the other side, the bark joins tightly with the granite.
In addition to the scar at the rim, strips bare of bark wind up the trunk. Several large roots are exposed and vulnerable, if not already dead. A good portion of the crown is dead. But the remaining live branches are healthy, their branchlets thick with needles.
The limber pine looks healthiest viewed from above.

As for change … there were some obvious ones. Several minor branches covered in green needles five years ago are now brown.
Five years ago my field assistant was Sparky, who was always happy to pose when I pulled out the camera. Now Spark is gone, replaced by Emmie, who still hasn’t figured out what a camera’s for, even after three years of fieldwork.

And those aches and pains I felt scrambling up to visit the tree this year, were they around five years ago? Hmmm. You know, I don’t remember …