The case of the Parisian berries
A berry intriguing mystery, climate change and the Cabinet, and flower of the week
It’s been summer-warm in November, southern birds are appearing in the Northeast and hanging around, and Trump’s time in the White House has an expiration date. What does that all mean? It means the time is right for collective action on climate change.
The Biden-Harris administration has pledged to rejoin the Paris Agreement to limit global warming to below 2 °C. That’s an essential first step. However, they’re also reportedly considering Ernest Moniz for Secretary of Energy in their cabinet.
That is not a good sign. Moniz has a network of ties to the fossil fuel industry as tangled as all those cables behind your TV. Going off his stated views alone, he has acted in support of a “clean coal” project (not only is “clean coal” not a workable solution, the intended facility was never completed) and supports natural gas as a “bridge” to renewable energy production. If you think that sounds reasonable and like a good compromise, you’d be right that it sounds that way, because it’s very effective PR for fracking and other natural gas extraction methods. Mathematically, natural gas simply contains too much carbon to meet our climate change reduction targets. Even if Biden and Harris have created an ambitious climate plan, it will come down to people like the Energy secretary to implement it, and Moniz gives me no confidence of that happening.
“But what are you expecting, Gearin?” you ask. “Greta Thunberg as Energy Secretary??” Well, maybe!! But failing that, there are people that are already tied to Biden who would do a better job at acting on climate change than Moniz, such as Jay Inslee, who you may remember from the primary as being focused on climate policy. Inslee has drafted plans for zero-emission electricity production by 2035 and followed through on renewable energy development in Washington state—actions that put him much more in line with the congressional Green New Deal legislation than Moniz. We’re in need of people that follow through.
What influence does an ordinary citizen have on Cabinet picks? It might not seem like we have a say, but the public discussion happening now is the way the new administration figures out who they can get away with appointing without losing large blocks of support. For example, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez spoke out about the idea of Rahm Emanuel being in the cabinet, given his attempt, while mayor of Chicago, to withhold camera footage of a police officer murdering Laquan McDonald, an unarmed Black man. I’m going to be calling Sen. Markey, a co-author (with AOC) of the Green New Deal, to encourage him to call for an Energy Secretary who will cooperate with effective climate change action. Our elected officials can speak out if we, as constituents, prompt them to do so, and advocacy groups that you’re a member of can listen to their members and state their picks for cabinet.
The case of the Parisian berries
A little while ago, an artist friend sent me down the path of a plant mystery. Now, at the outset, I’ll admit that many knowledgeable botanists probably could have recognized this plant from the first photo and pronounced the mystery done and dusted. But I want to show how I approached it, because I think it’s a useful example of how to use widely available tools to figure out unknown plants even if you don’t have thousands of species memorized. And because I like Sherlock Holmes.
John Mueller, an artist and designer, texted me a photo of a plant he had seen in Paris and was painting. He was hoping that someone could figure out the ID.
I had many first impressions, most of them misleading. The first was: that looks like grapes! However, I noticed that the presence of spines on the leaves and the compound structure of the leaves (multiple leaflets arranged opposite to each other) marked the plant as different from grapes (Vitis), which have broad, non-spiny and non-compound leaves.
The second impression was: this is in Paris, a very fancy city. And even not-so-fancy cities like Quincy have many introduced, ornamental species. While location is usually an important clue for plant ID in the field, gardening could throw that out the window. Confusingly, John had been told by a horticulturist in Missouri that this plant wouldn’t grow in our climate, even though northern France and Missouri are broadly similar in climate (both are wine-growing regions.) That made me suspect that perhaps the plant came from further south, perhaps a Mediterranean climate.
Nonetheless, for a start, I threw the photo into iNaturalist, which uses an AI algorithm to take a guess at the species (or at least the broad taxonomic group.) Initially, I left the location blank, because the Paris location could lead in the wrong direction. The initial guesses were all barberries (Berberis). iNaturalist left it at the genus level rather than making a species guess. While barberries all have opposite leaflets and many have toothed edges, the species all look very different. There were some barberries in a hedge by my old house, but they were bright red. My confidence in the ID was low, and I wanted to get to a species if possible.
Next, I tried feeding iNaturalist the location of Paris. That didn’t change the recommendations much, and the suggested species all looked wildly different. Many didn’t even have blue berries. That suggested that iNaturalist wasn’t very confident, either.
For more clues, I did a reverse image search on Google. The text results all said “Oregon grape,” Berberis aquifolium. This was confusing, because how would a species from northwestern North America end up in Paris? Of course, it could have been introduced there as an ornamental plant. That idea did fit the idea of a plant from a different climate, though, since the Pacific Northwest is a much rainier place than Missouri.
However, the leaflets on most pictures of Berberis aquifolium looked a little different than those in John’s photo, which were longer and thinner. The spines were also fewer but larger in the original photo. But I noticed something: Oregon grape used to be called Mahonia aquifolium. Most botanists now lump the Mahonia genus as simply a part of the large Berberis genus. This could explain why I was having a hard time sorting through Berberis suggestions, since it contains such different species. Maybe this plant was a former Mahonia species now hiding within Berberis.
I tried to find a match going the other direction: googling species of Mahonia and seeing if they matched the photo. I googled “Mahonia France.” From the blog posts and garden sites that emerged, it became clear that gardeners in Europe were planting many different varieties of introduced and hybridized barberries. One of the most common was something called Mahonia x media, a hybrid made in Northern Ireland in 1951 from Mahonia oiwakensis subsp. lomariifolia (from southeast Asia) and Mahonia japonica (from Japan.) It has since become a popular garden shrub in the UK and elsewhere in northern Europe.
Here’s one more clue: because of its similar appearance to Berberis aquifolium, Mahonia x media is often called Oregon grape, even though Berberis (Mahonia) aquifolium was not used to produce it! That may be why the horticulturist told John that this plant wouldn’t grow in Missouri: the confusion of the “Oregon” label frequently applied to a plant created in Europe from seeds originating in east Asia.
Holy lexical confusion, Batman. While I can’t be certain without actually seeing the plant itself, and can’t fully rule out Berberis aquifolium, I think the popularity of Mahonia x media in European gardening and the similarity of the leaflets in most photos (elongate, with spaced-out spines) are the best explanation of John’s photo I can find. (If you have a better idea, please let me know!)
We can also go back and say that iNaturalist’s diagnosis of the Berberis genus is basically right, though it leaves out most of the fun part. The trouble is that iNaturalist doesn’t include the many, many garden varieties that horticulturists have bred over the years, as it’s focused on wild species ID. In ecologist mode, I’d say that we stick with the Berberis ID and leave it at that. But still, one can speculate…
I hope this suggests some of the ways to attack an unknown plant photo as well as the many ways that people have moved around and hybridized garden plants over the years. Now to retire to my study, pretend to smoke a pipe, and play violin badly.
More importantly, here’s John’s finished painting:
Courtesy of John Mueller
Contact John about his art by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Flower of the week: Pineapple-weed
Here’s another flower that blooms relentlessly from April to November under the right conditions. And early November’s blast of heat was certainly right for pineapple-weed (Matricaria discoidea), a hardy plant that you can usually expect to find growing on the edges of a baseball infield. (Sometime, maybe next summer, I’ll do a series on the flora of the baseball field and its different “biomes”: the desert of the infield, the grassy steppe of the outfield, the chaotic hedges of honeysuckle and burdock.)
The common name refers to the sweet scent given off when the flowers are crushed. Introduced from northeast Asia, it thrives in dry, compacted soil, and may stick to tires, so it’s good at spreading where few other plants can grow.
Pineapple-weed is an edible plant—the flowers can go in a salad or, once dry, make tea—but what I’ve mostly used it for is something interesting to stare at while spacing out at second base during baseball practice as a preteen. The compound leaves are so intricate, and the flowers really do look like tiny pineapples, don’t they…
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Possum Notes is a weekly newsletter about wildlife and landscapes around where I live. It’s produced on occupied Massachusett and Wampanoag land.