(Image credit: Flickr user racineur)
A previously unacknowledged plant family of significant economic importance plants has been flourishing around us for many years. The fact that this immense and diverse family has been heretofore ignored by most botanists is astonishing—its members are found worldwide in nearly every society. This family is more than a botanical curiosity. It is a scientific conundrum, as the taxa:
- lack genetic material,
- appear virtually immortal and
- have the ability to form intergeneric crosses with ease, despite the lack of any evident mechanism for cross-fertilization.
In this study, conducted over approximately six years, we elucidate the first full description and review of this fascinating taxon, heretofore named Simulacraceae. The distribution, ecology, taxonomy, ethnobotany and chemistry of this widespread family are herein presented. We have identified more than 80 species, and determined that this cosmopolitan family has a varied ecology. This report delineates seventeen genera (Calciumcarbonatia, Celadonica, Conglomeratium, Dentumadhesivium, Ductusadhesivia, Granitus, Lignus, Metallicus, Papyroidia, Paraffinius, Photophyta, Plasticus, Polystyrin, Prophylactica, Simulacra, Silicus and Textileria).
Figure 1. Performing a species inventory in the Simulacraceae hotspot of the Rainforest Café, Palisades Center, Nyack, New York.
We used opportunistic sampling as our principal method for the study of the simulacraceae. We first became acutely interested in the simulacraceae during the 2000 Society for Economic Botany (SEB) annual meeting, when we began pondering the identities of ornamental arrangements. At the 2001 SEB meeting in Honolulu, Hawai’i, our interest was piqued by the species diversity evidenced in the culturally important lei (a Hawai’ian traditional garland of flowers, usually worn around the neck). Since then, we have been collecting simulacraceae whenever we stumble upon them. Family, friends and colleagues have contributed to this effort.
Collecting simulacraceous plants can be difficult. Although no country of which we are aware requires a permit, collecting is often hampered by property rights considerations. Speed with clippers is essential (although the enterprise is not without some minor ethical concerns). We also have purchased collections when necessary; this sometimes added a layer of obscurity to the provenance of particular specimens. In an effort to get some real numbers on the biodiversity of the simulacraceae, we prepared long and hard to conduct an extensive (1 day) field session in the simulacraceae-rich Rain Forest Café located in the Palisades Center, Nyack, New York (41.098° N, 73.956° W) in January, 2002. We performed a productive transect of the exterior of the café. The site included a 20-meter wall laden with simulacraceae, dominated by genus Plasticus (Figure 1). This transect was broken down into five plots (of 5 x 1meter) at random, and the species present in each plot were recorded, when they were identifiable. An abbreviated species list, including collections from this site, is found in the appendix. We tagged and mapped individuals of a particularly dominant species, Plasticus magnolius BRR, for modeling of population dynamics. In the remaining sections of this report, we present our results.
Figure 2. Simulacraceae collection localities are represented by stars, displaying a cosmopolitan distribution.
The simulacraceae are suspected to be cosmopolitan, and have been collected (so far) in the United States, Mexico, Panama, Peru, Brazil, Scotland, Portugal, Spain, Morocco, Mali, Nepal, Laos, Malaysia, China and Thailand (see Figure 2). They are found in all manner of ecotypes: house plants, fish tanks, home gardens, costumes, cemeteries, concrete gardens, parades, restaurants, museums, dentists’ offices, supermarkets, igloos, hotel rooms, zoos, hats and building lobbies. There seems to be no limit to the habitats in which the simulacraceae can grow, except perhaps in the wild. This may be evidence of some human–simulacraceae symbiotic relation that bears further study.
Figure 3. A member of the tribe Cyborgiae, a probable outgroup of Simulacraceae.
Description and Phylogeny
So far, we have identified seventeen genera and 86 species in the Simulacraceae sensu strictu: Calciumcarbonatia (5), Celadonica (3), Conglomeratium (3), Dentumadhesivium (1), Ductusadhesivia (3), Granitus (2), Hotairia (1), Lignus (6), Metallicus (4), Papyroidia (1), Paraffinius (1), Photophyta (2), Plasticus (51), Polystyrin (4), Prophylactica (1), Silicus (5) and Textileria (3). Given the apparent lack of genetic material, relationships among the genera resulted in an indeterminate “bush-like” phylogeny. A complete search of the literature turned up no records of morphological genera fossils that we could equate to our extant Simulacraceae genera.We were only somewhat successful at finding transitional groups or living fossils of the simulacraceae. For example, the Cyborgiae (Figure 3) appears as either an advanced transitional group or very complex symbiotically intertwined organisms.
Comprehensive chemical analysis proved to be an effective tool for delineating taxa in this diverse genomically-challenged family. Samples were prepared and subjected to various modern spectroscopic means of analysis, including touch, feel and smell. Indeed, the naming of the taxa follows from the physical constituents. Species of Plasticus, the most abundant and speciose genus, are typically composed primarily of complex polymers of long-chain hydrocarbons, indicative of their origins in the petrochemical industry. Textileria is a varied genus morphologically, but all species tend to be composed of various fabrics. Metallicus (Figure 4) is an easily recognizable genus, often shiny and generally hard to the touch. Calciumcarbonatia species are created primarily from seashells. Ductusadhesivia is a unique genus made entirely from that ubiquitous problem-solver, duct tape. Granitus species are all those composed of rock, regardless of the geology of those rocks. Silicus flowers (Figure 5) are typified by the use of glass as the primary component. Lignus are constructed from the wood of euphytae, the true plants. Papyroidia species include all those species described by the Japanese tradition of origami, as well as other more pedestrian paper plants. Simulacra is a very interesting monotypic genus composed of latex barrier-method sexual prohylatics represented by one collection from a restaurant in Bangkok, Thailand. Hotaria is a new monotypic genus of flexible vessels filled with air or lighter-than-air gases found in uptown Manhattan, New York City. Paraffinius plants seem to comprise parts made of vegetable, animal or mineral-based waxes, limiting their range to more temperate environments. Photophyta are made at least partially of objects that emit light such as light-emitting diodes and fluorescent or incandescent lights. The light production of Photophyta leads us to predict a possible commensal symbiosis between any photosynthetic member of Euphyta and Photophyta. The Celadonica genus is composed of any clay, ceramic and/or glaze, leading to great durability. Conglomeratium (Figure 6) is made of material that is an artificial mixture or conglomeration of rocks and minerals, including the large concrete plants that can be found in some public squares. Polystyrin is composed of styrofoam or other polymers enclosing many minute air pockets.
Figure 4. Metallicus pinus var. celltowerabscondium in metro Detroit.
Given the apparent cosmopolitan nature of this family, the ecology of the simulacraceae is rather difficult to circumscribe. We found simulacraceae within all of Koppen’s climate classifications (McKnight 1984), in an enormous range of ecosystems. However, individuals within the family exhibit a clustered distribution. In fact, those areas with very high species richness of simulacraceae are restricted to relatively small microenvironments, perhaps best described as hotspots. Populations and communities of simulacraceae appear allelopathic: where simulacraceae are found, euphytae are at a distance. However, we have found very restricted cases of apparent non-obligate mutualistic or parasitic symbioses of simulacraceae and euphytae: the species Plasticus laurus was discovered intertwined with a Quercus species, and P. gypsophyllum was located among numerous euphytae. In 2002, we conducted a census of 178 plants at the Palisades Center Mall in Nyack, N.Y. We mapped and tagged all individuals, measured size from the anchoring substrate to leaf apex, counted leaves, and marked leaves and flowers with paint to track productivity. In our initial census we were surprised to find individuals restricted to the reproductive stage class. However, in 2004 when a particularly dominant species in the Nyack location, P. magnolias, was reviewed again, we were not surprised to find the data exactly the same as our 2002 results. In the three years between censuses, no individuals grew. In fact, stage residence was 100%. The same leaves and flowers that we marked in 2002 remained and repeat photography of the flowers revealed the same stage of blossoming in 2004. In addition, there remained only one stage, with an absence of seeds, juveniles, pre-reproductive or senescent individuals.
Figure 5. Silicus nymphaeus (holotype) displaying turgidity after being out. of water for many decades, in. Cambridge, Massachusetts.
By world market standards, this family is of extreme economic importance, following close behind the main agricultural families. Interestingly, during the course of extensive informal interviews with cultural practitioners, we found no edible, medical, poisonous or hallucinogenic uses for any species in this family. Instead, people throughout the world generally use simulacraceae for art, ritual and ornament, with occasional utilitarian uses. Artisanal uses for simulacraceae are quite common. They are often utilized in wreaths, bouquets and beading, and by schoolchildren in class projects. We have witnessed simulacraceae used for ornamentation at multiple scales in zoos, museum displays, malls, hotel lobbies and clothing. The ever-increasing ritual use of simulacraceae includes simulacraceae Christmas trees, World War II Textileria papaver, carnival costumes and Day of the Dead grave decorations. Finally, it is worth noting that a number of simulacraceae also have highly specialized utilitarian uses. Our research has uncovered surprising cases of simulacraceae in the public sector, including a trash can, a telephone and a cell phone tower (Figure 4). Plasticus lumber is becoming increasingly common for boardwalks in seaside towns and residential housing. It is extremely durable, lightweight, attractive and relatively inexpensive. While composed of complex polymeric hydrocarbons, it is generally the product of recycling, and is therefore not directly reliant on non-renewable resources in the form of crude oil. With increasing alarm over the degradation of the euphytae, we applaud the growing use of simulacraceae for such utilitarian items.
Figure 6. Conglomeratium arachis (holotype) and C. mangiferum (holotype) serving an advertising function outside Savannakhet, Laos.
We have delineated an entirely new taxa at the family level that has gone unnoticed by botanists. We have presented data on the phylogeny, ecology, chemistry, and ethnobotany of the heretofore undescribed yet economically important plant family Simulacraceae. As we approach press time, new species and even genera within this family continue to be found. We hope that others will be inspired to take up the challenge of continuing this important work.
Physical Geography: A Landscape Appreciation. T.L. McKnight. Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1984. Note: A version of this article was published in the journal Ethnobotany Research and Applications.
Appendix: List of Simulacraceae collections
List of Simulacraceae collections, including those from Rainforest Café Plasticus inventory of Nyack, N.Y. in 2002, deposited in the Foundation for Artificial Knowledge Education (FAKE) herbarium.
|Common Name||Genus||Species||Variety||Authority||Coll. No.||Coll. Date||Locality||Habitat|
|Dancing doll orchid||Plasticus||oncidum||N. Bletter||NB 18||31-May-01||Honolulu, HI, inside Hilton hotel apartments, 2003 Kalia Rd, 1st floor bathroom.||Floral arrangement in bathroom hotel, low light, high humidity.|
|Plumeria||Plasticus||plumeria||N. Bletter||NB 19||02-Jun-01||Kailua Kona, HI, inside Keahole-Kona International Airport shop, Airport Rd.||Lei arrangement from airport shop rack, found with Plasticus hibiscus and Plasticus nephrolepis.|
|Wisteria||Plasticus||wisteria||N. Bletter||NB 21||17-Jun-01||Quogue, N.Y., inside suburban diner.||Floral arrangement in diner banquet, in flower boxes with numerous other species.|
|Hydrangea||Plasticus||hydrangea||N. Bletter||NB 13||15-Dec-01||New York, N.Y., Manhattan, inside 452 W 13th St. & 10th Ave., 2nd floor.||Abandoned meat-packing warehouse, cold bathroom, found in pot used as door stop, quite dusty.|
|Schefflera||Plasticus||schefflera||N. Bletter||NB 15||15-Dec-01||New York, N.Y., Brooklyn, east side of Bedford Ave., between S 5th St. and S 4th St.||Attached to existing Euphyta street tree in a sidewalk plot.|
|Lemon||Plasticus||citrus||N. Bletter||NB 7||29-Dec-01||New York, N.Y., Brooklyn, Costume of bar denizen, Bugaloo, 168 Marcy & S. 5th St.||Smoky bar, with “white” theme dress. Plants found wrapped around one participant dressed in roman toga.|
|Pothos||Plasticus||philodendron||N. Bletter||NB 25||17-Jan-02||West Nyack, N.Y., inside Palisade Center shopping mall, on outside wall of Rain Forest Café store.||Found in dried out aquatic area, perhaps fallen from the wall and ceiling where it was apparently had a climbing habit and was interspersed with 49 other Plasticus species.|
|Philodendron||Plasticus||philodendron||BRR||BRR 19||17-Jan-02||West Nyack, N.Y., inside Palisade Center shopping mall, on outside wall of Rain Forest Café store||Simulacraceae hotspot outside on wall of Rain Forest Café store.|
|Magnolia||Plasticus||magnolia||White||BRR||BRR 26||17-Jan-02||West Nyack, N.Y., inside Palisade Center shopping mall, on outside wall of Rain Forest Café store.||Simulacraceae hotspot outside on wall of Rain Forest Café store.|
1City University of New York Graduate Center, Biological Sciences, N.Y., N.Y.; 2Current address: Weill Cornell Medical College, N.Y., N.Y.; 3New York Botanical Garden, Bronx, N.Y.; 4Yale University, School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, New Haven, CT; 5Current address: University of Georgia Department of Anthropology, Athens, GA.
The article above by Kurt Allerslev Reynertson, Julie Velasquez, and Nat Bletter is republished with permission from the January-February 2008 issue of the Annals of Improbable Research. You can download or purchase back issues of the magazine, or subscribe to receive future issues. Or get a subscription for someone as a gift! Visit their website for more research that makes people LAUGH and then THINK.