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Eggplant names cracked

Researchers untangle the names of spiny wild aubergines.

Solanum insanum

Taxonomists provide plant names to plant breeders and genebank curators. This service is critical for identifying wild relatives of cultivated plants and essential for breeding new food crops. Species naming is often confusing in crop wild relatives, and aubergines (eggplants) are worse than most.

Spiny wild aubergines in Africa and Asia show amazing morphological variability. Almost every taxonomic treatment has recognised different Latin species names, and the Latin species names compete with informal group names used by plant breeders. Morphology-based taxonomic work using thousands of herbarium specimens and a compilation of all historic names has been combined with DNA sequence analysis to present a reference to species identification and the correct names for the wild aubergines – a clade of 10 species in Solanum subgenus Leptostemonum in the family Solanaceae. The work is published in the on-line journal PLoS ONE.

Solanum aureitomentosum, Solanum cerasiferum, Solanum rigidum and Solanum umtuma from tropical Africa, South Africa and the Cape Verde have not been used for breeding work before. Solanum insanum is the closest relative of the cultivated aubergine (Solanum melongena) and is the most difficult to distinguish from it morphologically: a combination of seven different characters is needed to tell these species apart.

Aubergine breeders and germplasm scientists can now use this work to identify their wild aubergines and update their names.

Item from Dr Maria Vorontsova (Grass Taxonomist, RBG, Kew)

Kew Scientist, issue 43

Article reference:

Knapp, S., Vorontsova, M.S. & Prohens, J. (2013). Wild relatives of the eggplant (Solanum melongena L.: Solanaceae): new understanding of species names in a complex group. PLoS ONE 8(2): e57039 (open access)

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