Pa. 7th graders help name new 'bloody' plant species

he1plant-22052017-0001
The whitish-green unripe fruit of this plant turns bloody red when sliced open. When ripe, it is hard as bone.

What do you call a plant whose greenish, unripe fruit turns bloody red if you slice it open – but if you let it ripen, it turns hard as a bone?

Why Solanum ossicruentum, of course – from the Latin “ossi” for bony and “cruentum” for bloody.

Bucknell University biology professor Christopher T. Martine picked that name with the help of seventh-grade students at Donald H. Eichhorn Middle School in Lewisburg, Pa.

The unusual new find made the list of top ten new species for 2017, announced Monday by the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry. Other oddities on the list included a spider from India named Eriovixia gryffindori, because its body is shaped like the Sorting Hat from the Harry Potter books, and a spiny-backed ant from Papua New Guinea named Pheidole drogon, after Drogon the black dragon in the Game of Thrones series.

Bucknell’s Martine found the blood-and-bone plant in 2014 in Australia, where it had been known for years. But no one had ever undertaken the detailed analysis required to identify it as a new species.

Martine, who brought back seeds to grow in a greenhouse at Bucknell, determined that it belonged in the genus Solanum, along with tomatoes, potatoes, and eggplants, but that it was different enough to merit its own species name. Among other unusual features, it comes in separate male and female versions, whereas most plants have both male and female parts.

For help with the naming, he brought live plants for his presentation at Eichhorn Middle School, where students were asked to write an essay proposing a name. Several focused on the blood and bone aspect, so Martine drew the name from their suggestions, and the result was published in 2016 in the journal PhytoKeys.

Students at Eichhorn Middle School helped name a new plant species for its “bloody” and “bony” characteristics. The result was published by Bucknell University biologist Christopher Martine, wearing a tie. (JASON T. CANTLEY)

The plant goes by the common name of bush tomato, but it does not appear to be edible.

“I’ve taken a very small taste and it’s incredibly bitter,” Martine said.

The College of Environmental Science and Forestry, based in Syracuse, produces the top ten species list each year both to highlight “weird, wild, and wonderful” new discoveries, and to remind the public that species are disappearing faster than they can be identified, college president Quentin Wheeler said.

It is published in late May to coincide with the birthday of 18th century Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus, known as the father of taxonomy. The list is now in its 10th year.