Botanist discovers new ground-flowering plant in Panama

January 21, 2016
Calathea galdamesiana. Credit: Rodolfo Flores

Rattlesnake, zebra and peacock plants have a new wild relative, discovered by Rodolfo Flores, Panamanian botanist and intern at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI). Helen Kennedy, herbarium research associate at the University of California at Riverside, and Flores named the species Calathea galdamesiana in honor of STRI's herbarium assistant, Carmen Galdames.

"Carmen has been the direct or indirect teacher for many botanists in Panama," Flores said. "She's extremely dedicated and is an example for us to follow."

C. galdamesiana belongs to the Marantaceae family, identified by the large, oval leaves of C. lutea known as bijao, natural wrappers for food like tamales and juanes. The new is distinguished from several dozen other species of Calathea by the shape of its leaves. In addition, the new species' one-to-four inflorescences—flower-bearing structures—are produced on a shoot that extends along the ground from an underground stem (rhizome), a very unusual plant character.

Flores discovered the only known example of C. galdamesiana in Panama's Santa Fe National Park where he was participating in a biological diversity inventory organized by the Panamanian Ministry of the Environment's Mesoamerican Biological Corridor Project. New collections and the formal species description were carried out as part of STRI's Nagoya Protocol Project.

The will be included in Kennedy's treatment of the Marantaceae family in The Flora Mesoamericana, an initiative of the Missouri Botanical Garden, the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México and the Natural History Museum (London), which will be published in Spanish so it will be accessible to botany students and professionals in Latin America.

Carmen Galdames, STRI Herbarium Assistant and Rodolfo Flores, STRI Intern. Credit: Jorge Aleman, STRI

Kennedy, who worked at STRI with former staff scientist Robert Dressler and also as curator at Panama's Summit Garden herbarium in Panama, wanted to honor Galdames for her role in plant taxonomy.

"Carmen Galdames has always been very helpful to me when I was at the STRI herbarium," she said. "It is an honor for us to acknowledge her in this manner."

Flores not only added the plant to the Smithsonian's herbarium, he also added it to his collection of tattoos. Now working in the STRI herbarium, Flores has also been an intern at the Missouri Botanical Garden where he identified collected during a project led by Alicia Ibáñez as part of the International Cooperative Biodiversity Group's efforts to inventory botanically underexplored areas in Panama. During two months of intense work with several specialists from Missouri Botanical Garden, Rodolfo came back with more than 20 plant species new to science, which now await description, and more than 15 new plant records to Panama, including one new genus for Mesoamerica. He plans to travel to Marie Selby Botanical Gardens to work with Bruce Holst, a specialist on the Myrtaceae plant family.

Calathea galdamesiana inflorescence. Credit: Rodolfo Flores / Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute

"He's a real dynamo," said Galdames.

"People are always surprised when they hear the stories behind my tattoos," said Flores, who has even been arrested and held overnight in jail because gangs in Panama often identify themselves via tattooed symbols. "One of my tattoos combines my favorite childhood stories about the existence of forest sprites (duendes) as well as one of my favorite cultural movements—hip-hop or breakdancing—which I've been involved in for the past 15 years, and my profession as a botanist."

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