Friday, August 29, 2014

Answer: What are these plants?

This week was obviously far too easy.  

Or, the SearchResearch readers have been developing their research skills!  

I'll assume it was the second. In either case, very nice work.  Some people knew the answers off the top of their heads, which goes to show the value of a great social network--you can quickly tap into the collective knowledge base (and superior recognition skills) that your extended personal network has.   This isn't to be undervalued!  As Howard Rheingold illustrates in his new book, Net Smart, there is a value and a quality of participation that links together bloggers, netizens, tweeters, and other online community participants.  This set of people and networks form an online collaborative enterprise that can contribute new knowledge to the world in new ways.  And best of all, it forms a personal knowledge network that you can tap into.  

But we'll talk about that in another post.  Today, let's figure out how to search for the answers to these challenges.  

This week I showed the following three images and asked the obvious question--what are these plants?  Here's what I did to answer each question:  

1.  I found this under a redwood tree in a lawn at one of the Google buildings.  I visited here every day for a week, and took this series of pictures over a couple of days.  It's shady here, but as you can see, it's just the lawn under the canopy of the redwood.  What ARE these things? What's the genus and species name?  

A few people reported success with doing Search-by-Image (and that's a great approach).  But I did a simple series of searches: 

     [ mushroom dissolving ] 

Why that query?  Because this transformation (from left to right in the images) happened over a short period of time (about 2 days).  This was easily the most striking thing about this mushroom.  Sure mushrooms often fall apart quickly, but the way the edge of the mushroom just... "dissolved"... was remarkable.  So I chose "dissolving" as one of my key search terms.  And sure enough, the first hit was to the Mushroom Appreciation site where I learned this is the Coprinus comatus, the "Shaggy Mane" mushroom, aka "Lawyer's Wig" or "ink caps."  

I then did a search for the binomial name (that is, Coprinus comatus) and found lots of corroborating evidence (and more images that match very closely).  As a few other folks did, I discovered (their page on Shaggy Mane) and liked their level of detail in describing how to identify the particular variety.  

As Mushroom Appreciation writes:  "Like a frightened squid or exploding pen, this mushroom releases a black liquid that is laden with spores. As it matures it will deliquesce, meaning it will appear to melt away until only the stem is left."  (That word, deliquesce, was new to me, so I did a [ define deliquesce ] -- a lovely term meaning "to become liquid"!)  

There's also a section on the Mushroom Appreciation site that gives details about how to identify this mushroom (and possibly similar-appearing mushrooms).  

Apparently this mushroom is also edible, although a bit delicate to prepare.  (And you have to move quickly from "just picked" to "just cooked," as they'll deliquesce not long after you pick them. 

 { As always, don't eat any mushrooms until you've taken a class in mycology and identification!  It's easy to get really sick or die after eating a mis-identified mushroom. } 

2.  Here's another thing I found sticking up out of the soil in my garden.  This is a particularly well-watered section of the garden--you can see the green beans growing in the background.  Just before I took this picture, the brown parts at the tip were covered in flies.  I know why, because it smelled terrible--a bit like rotting meat--perfect fly attractant.  Unfortunately, I only got one good picture.  I took several, but it was in a somewhat difficult to reach place, and this was the only one in good focus. It's about 5 inches long, and seemingly appeared overnight.  What IS this thing?  (And should I be worried about it?)  

For this, the most salient search clues would seem to be: (a) it smells really bad, and (b) it's growing in my garden.  

I'm going to include "garden" in my search term because I mostly seem mushrooms in lawns, or in woodlands where the places mushrooms grow is fairly stable over time.  Since garden soil is churned up at least twice a year, the mushrooms that grow in that kind of place would seem to be very different than "ordinary" mushrooms.  

So my first query was: 

     [ stinky mushroom garden ] 

Which gave me the following SERP: 

See that row of images?  This is called "Universal blended Images" (because the algorithm "blends in" image results into the regular search results. 

This kind of thing happens only when there's pretty strong evidence that your search terms are all included with the texts describing these images.  

I was also struck by the appearance of the word "Stinkhorn" on the page several times.  What a strange thing!  

To evaluate this page, I clicked on the row of images to see what was there.  It's a surprising set of mushrooms.  Such shapes and colors!  And all, apparently, stinky.  

When cruising through the images I found a couple that looked very similar to the picture I took.  When I clicked on the first one that seemed very similar, I found myself back on on a page titled "Stinkhorns: The Phallaceae and Clathraceae."  

There's that word again:  Stinkhorn.  (And two genus names as well, Phallaceae and Clathraceae.)  

I read the MushroomExpert page about Stinkhorns and found an identification key at the bottom of the page.  This makes me feel good about the credibility of the content:  Good botanical guides will have "keys" like this to help you winnow out the various possibilities.  
Here's what their key looks like: 

Start at step one.  Answer the question.  If it's true, then you know it's Stahelimyces cinctus.
If that's "Not as above" then jump to question 2.  Proceed like this, answering questions
and following the flowchart.  If the the "spore slime occurring on the inner surface..." then jump
to question #12.  
Sure enough, if you run through their key, you'll find it's a Lysurus mokusin, the "Lantern Stinkhorn."   

Curiously, for something that smells so bad, it is "... considered to be edible when still in the immature "egg" stage, and is thought to be a delicacy in China. When mature, its foul odor would deter most individuals from attempting consumption..."  

No kidding.  

 3.  While running through the Stanford Industrial Park (where HP headquarters, Varian, Xerox PARC, and a bunch of Silicon Valley research labs are located) I found the bush below covered in red berries.  Each berry is around 1 inch in diameter, and the bushes themselves are used as hedges.  It's an attractive plant, and I can see why you'd plant long stretches of this between buildings.  Oddly, I've also seen this plant grown as a tree with a trunk planted as a decorative planting along sidewalks.  And if I recall correctly, I remember there's some connection with Madrid.  What kind of bush/tree is this?  And what's the connection with Madrid? What's the genus/species name?  

Most SearchResearchers seemed to have ID-ed this by using "Search-by-Image," and that's a fine way to do it.  (The trick seems to have been to crop the image down.) 

But I have to admit to doing the relatively simple description of the most obvious feature: 

     [ strawberry tree ] 

As luck would have it, the first page of results are all about this tree.  I had no idea that it would be THAT easy to identify.  

As everyone seems to have figured out instantly, this is the Arbutus unedo, aka the "Strawberry Tree," that's commonly planted in temperate climates as a reliable hedge or ornamental.  

Interestingly, Arbutus unedo was one of the species described by Carl Linnaeus in Volume One of his landmark 1753 work Species Plantarum, giving Arbutus the name it still bears today.  This book was the landmark work that set up the whole binomial naming scheme that we still use today.  (That is, the Genus species names that we give to organisms.)  Given that so many of the names assigned to plants have changed over the past 250 years, it's remarkable that Arbutus unedo still has the same name!   

Wikipedia entry says:  "The fruit is a red berry, 1–2 cm diameter, with a rough surface. The fruit is edible, though many people find it bland and mealy.  The name 'unedo' is explained by Pliny the Elder as being derived from unum edo "I eat one," which may seem an apt response to the flavor."

Fact checking:  For the good of the blog, I ate one of the ripe berries.  (After, of course, checking that I had my identification down correctly.)  And I can report that they are mealy, with a fairly bland flavor.  It was more-or-less a "meh" experience. 

But unlike a real strawberry, the "mealiness" of the undeo meant that I kept picking little bits of the fruit out of my teeth for hours afterwards.  The fruit is really a composite of many tiny bits, so it was a bit like eating a slightly fruity ball of cornmeal.  You could eat many of these and survive, but you probably wouldn't want to do so.  

To make the final connection, I double checked Wikipedia's comment about the undeo fruit appearing on the herald of Madrid.  

     [ Arbutus Madrid ] 

leads to many confirming pages, including a site that specializes in heraldry, and confirms that the bear is eating the fruit of the Arbutus unedo.  

Search lessons 

1. Sometime the obvious search is exactly right.  I find people often overly complexify their searches.  Try the obvious search ( [strawberry tree] or [mushroom dissolving]) and you might well be surprised to see that this is the way many people have written about the topic; meaning that your obvious search will lead to the obvious results.  

2.  Search by image is great (especially if you use the cropping trick).  As a few readers found (cropping the image to get to just the important parts), this works remarkably well.   When cropping, choose the parts that you think other photographers will likely focus on.  

3.  The presence of a identification key marks botanical pages as being serious works.  If you've read many plant or flower identification sites, the ones with a "key to identification" tend to be pretty serious sites.  Yes, the keys can be intimidating, but it tells me that someone has gone to a LOT of trouble to help us understand how to figure out what kind of plant this is.  You don't just toss off a key in a few minutes--they take a lot of time and effort to create.  Any site that has one (that they've created) is probably a pretty decent reference source.  

Next week... a real challenge--a two week challenge (as I'm going on vacation for the first 2 weeks of September)!  Get your search skills out, and get ready to research! 

Search on! 


  1. Good Day, Dr. Russell.

    I learned a lot about mushrooms. Also, it is great to know how the fruit tastes like. I wonder how the liquor will taste.

    Key marks is a new thing for me as well as other words like: deliquesce and winnow. Never thought about searching with [ strawberry tree ] just because they don't look as strawberries to me, specially in photos 2 and 3. I need to give a better look at future photos.

    As always, the SearchResearch Challenge was great. Lots of fun, practice and learn. Thanks Dr. Russell. I am looking forward for the two week challenge. I know it will be great. Maybe if some of my peers wants we can chat on Hangouts to work some part of it some day.

    I wish you a fantastic vacation, Dr. Russell

  2. Hi - thought readers of this blog might be interested in this photo archive project

    Have a good holiday.

  3. I am glad I came back and checked out this page. Sarah George I think that's a great article & link.

    It's a reminder to me to be sure to check the answer page (or post a comment with "notify me" selected) otherwise I miss contributions like yours.


  4. hello i found a lot of good information from mashrooms dr dussels im just reading the news today and i just found this helpful list of flower names for girls from the web it also has plant names and a very good information about plants

  5. After reading this post I have changed some of my blog post titles and descriptions. Let’s see what happens. By the way great detailed article with high value.
    Social Media Post

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