Following Lucy’s blog post about the discovery of new Solanum species in Kenya by Drs Maria Vorontsova and Dr Maarten Christenhusz earlier this year, I’ve had the opportunity to catch up with Maria to find out more about why they made the visit and the implications of their findings.
Maria tells me that her interest was first piqued when she was studying herbarium specimens of African Solanum in the Kew Gardens herbarium collection. She says she saw some strange specimens that didn’t have species names and didn’t look like any other species. Intrigued, she recorded locality information from the labels to find out where they were from. She then travelled to Kenya to see if the plants were still there and to find out if they really were new species like she suspected.
Maarten and Maria working in the field
Visiting old collection localities, Maria and Maarten found that in many places there was no more native vegetation because the goats ate everything, and in other places because there was now a maize plantation there instead.
Nonetheless, their four weeks spent hunting for Solanum paid off as they identified three new species - Solanum polhillii (which is named after the brilliant botanist Roger Polhill), Solanum phoxocarpum (which means ‘pointy fruited’) and Solanum malindiense (which means that the species comes from Malindi). Maria and Maarten are now writing a journal article describing the new species.
They saw severe habitat degradation for two of the species and the trip has highlighted how rare species are disappearing before we even know they are out there.
A lot more work is needed, says Maria. In her words: ‘There are so many strange and beautiful tropical plants out there, and we don’t even know how many species we have.’
She added that as long as we don’t know how many and what species there are, we can’t know how to protect them or what useful resources they might provide.
It’s a big task, but scientists from the Botany Department are doing what they can to rectify this situation. The Museum is part of Solanaceae Source, a worldwide collaboration to study the genus Solanum. Most of the 1500 known species in this large genus grow in South and Central America, while Tanzania and Kenya have the largest diversity of spiny Solanums in Africa.
So what’s next? As well as preparing the journal article, Maria is now working towards a book on all spiny Solanum in Africa and Madagascar and is planning to go to Tanzania and Madagascar in 2010. Let’s hope we can catch up with her again then.