Insalata mista – taxonomy in action

I’m not very good at identifying wild flowers. Now I suppose that’s a bit of a confession for someone who studied botany. But I know how to identify plants I don’t know by using the appropriate flora and keys.

Funnily enough my interest in natural history began with my bird-watching hobby (that I continue intermittently). And I’ve always been able to identify British birds quite easily – provided I get a good look to see any identifying marks. So I’m not sure why my brain isn’t wired up to do the same with plants. I’m always having to ask my wife what the plants are growing in our garden.

I even taught a level 2 course on flowering plant taxonomy when I worked at the University of Birmingham. However, I was much more interested in the evolutionary forces that shaped the variation in the plants around us: genetics, ecology, and reproductive biology among others. That’s how I came to get involved in the field of plant genetic resources and their conservation and use for much of my career.

Professor Vernon Heywood

As an undergraduate at Southampton University in the late 60s, I’d sat in on a course of about 20 lectures on flowering plant taxonomy given by Prof. Vernon Heywood from the University of Reading. Les Watson, the department’s own taxonomist had emigrated to Australia at the end of my second year in 1969, and Prof. Heywood filled the ‘taxonomic gap’ in our botanical perspectives, coming down from Reading once a week for 10 weeks. As it turned out, the taxonomy component wasn’t a requirement for my course in Environmental Botany and Geography, and I wasn’t examined on this. I just felt that it was too good an opportunity to miss.

I didn’t meet Prof Heywood again for more than 20 years. In April 1991 I had already signed a contract to join IRRI in the Philippines from July that year, leaving my position at the University of Birmingham. As the incoming head of IRRI’s Genetic Resources Center, IRRI’s management asked me to attend a meeting of the FAO Commission on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture in Rome. I think Heywood was there in his capacity as a representative of IUCN or some other international organization. Anyway, we got chatting and agreed to meet for dinner one evening at one of his favourite restaurants near the Via Venetto. We had a wonderful dinner, washed down with copious quantities of a new wine for me – a Sicilian red Corvo (Duca di Salaparuta), and a discussion of the taxonomic complexities of an Italian insalata mista!

When you think about it, almost every meal we eat is a cornucopia of taxonomic and evolutionary history. Those potatoes to which you just added another knob of butter, how far removed are they from the native potatoes of South America, and which wild species were used to breed disease and pest resistance? How many varieties of cauliflower are grown in commerce compared to what farmers have grown for centuries? Where did the sweet potato originate and how was it transported – and when – into Polynesia? I could go on and on. That’s the joy of plant genetic resources – understanding the origins and evolution of the food plants that keep us alive, and how all that genetic potential must be conserved and used for the benefit of all.

Amazing what ideas a humble salad can bring to the surface!

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