New plant species have been identified and ideas challenged by an Oxford University team

New plant species have been identified and ideas challenged by an Oxford University team today [date] with a landmark 825-page ‘monograph’ – an historic academic study of an enormous plant genus.

The monograph of Ipomoea, also known as ‘Morning Glories’, has taken five years and includes all 425 species from tropical America , including the important staple food crop, sweet potato.

Monographic work at Oxford started more than 360 years ago, with Robert Morison who created the first monograph during the reign of Charles II. But the team led by Professor Robert Scotland, of Oxford’s Department of Plant Sciences, has used traditional techniques blended with cutting-edge science.

Thousands of specimens were examined from collections around the world and the team built a ‘family tree’ metres’ long and millions of years deep – which is available free online.

  • Sixty five new species have been identified.
  • Numerous errors have been corrected in labelling of plant specimens in museum collections (40% of specimens sequenced for DNA required a new name).
  • Long-held ideas, cherished by botanists and anthropologists, have been challenged.

The monograph established that plants travelled long distances over land and sea, without any human assistance. This undermines assertions that the existence of sweet potatoes in Polynesia proves beyond doubt there must have been early contact between the Americas and islanders.

John Wood, one of the monograph’s authors, says it has very real implications for the environment and conservation.  ‘How can you know the future of a plant, if you don’t know of its existence or its characteristics?’ he asks. This is particularly important in the case of potential food crops, such as the wild relatives of the sweet potato, which is one of the top ten global food crops.

‘Insects and flowering plants are the two big powerhouses of global biodiversity,’ says another of the authors, Dr Pablo Munoz Rodriquez . ‘Yet for groups, such as Ipomoea, we haven’t even known what there is….and there’s no chance you can conserve something, if you don’t know what you’ve got.’