Sunday, 2 November 2014

How closely are these two plants related?

Sometimes we find two plants with unmistakable similarity, and we might wonder how closely they are related? Can we, as enthusiastic gardening bods, burrow into the scientific data online and figure this out for ourselves? Yes, we can!

Academic science is all made public via journals, and increasingly via big bioinformatics databases.

This means that if we want to find out how closely two plants are related then it only takes a couple of minutes work, and no expense to figure this out. 

First we go to the NCBI Taxonomy Browser:

We search for the first of the two plants that we are interested in: Iris reticulata Harmony

Iris reticulata Harmony
The complete lineage if the species is shown near to the top of the page under the word "Lineage":

cellular organisms;

The second plant that we are interested in is a marsh orchid, which I think is probably Dactylorhiza majalis.

A marsh orchid, probably Dactylorhiza majalis
Searching for this plant name gives the lineage below:

cellular organisms

If we take the two lineages of these plants and look for the categories in common we can see where the two species are believed to diverge, just below the  Asparagales:

                                         cellular organisms;














                             Iridaceae;                          Orchidaceae

                                  Iris                                     Orchidoideae




Clicking around in these pages it is possible to see that our two plants are also related to other plants in the Asparagales group, for example Agapanthoideae (African lily family), Allioideae (onion famly), and Asparagaceae (asparagus family).

So the answer is that they are pretty closely related, but there are a bunch of other things that are in that group too, which are also fairly different. 

It is very easy to find out which plants are also in this group, and we might like to consider growing some to see if they enjoy the same conditions as are two existing plants. Remember though, a marsh orchid that thrives in wet Scottish soil and a tropical orchid are unlikely to like the same ground, even though they may be in the same family group, so this is careful work. We definitely want to read up on these related plants before we go spending hard earned cash on plants. 

Good! So now we have done some bioinformatics with our gardening. That's a pretty good day by any measure.