Israel: Capparis ramonensis and Plantago sabulosa

Published: January 1st, 2012 | Updated: 17/01/15

Two species new to science in 2011

Telling friends and colleagues that I have discovered species new to science triggers many questions that are hard to answer. Those who deal often with plants and their names may think that all the plants are already known and that the botanist has only to organize the information in books or other user-friendly media and present it to the public. In many cases the information is inaccurate and many different species are considered as belonging to the same species. I present here the “behind the scenes” story about the discovery of two species I am involved in determining and naming as new to science. Each has its own unique story. My aim is to raise the awareness of the long, intricate process preceding the declaration of a species new to science. I hope also to increase, in some small measure, the knowledge about plant taxonomy. This science may itself be considered an “endangered species” due to the world-wide tendency to diminish the role of this basic science, and its associated dependant sciences.

Capparis ramonensis Danin

When reviewing the work of Inocencio et al., (2006) on the caper species of our area I saw that the most important features selected by them as diagnostic are the plant habit and its habitat. The caper I have studied over the last few years, which was collected in Makhtesh Ramon, did not match any of the species they included through the whole Mediterranean, Irano-Turanian and Saharo-Arabian regions. At the end of summer 2010 I asked Noa and Yoav Avni, living in Mizpe Ramon, to go and sample green branches of the plant in Makhtesh Ramon. I wanted to have flowers and fruits as well, but the plants “did not want to provide any,” as if saying to us, “Come in the right season and we will talk.” I arrived at En Saharonim in Makhtesh Ramon on February 2, 2011, and met Nadav and Ran, the nature reserve rangers. They took me to places on the outcrops of the Triassic gypsum that Nadav knew from the previous year. The five specimens we saw were leafless and their creeping stems were dry.

At the beginning of June, Noa and Yoav went again to the Makhtesh near En Ra’af and Shen Ramon. They collected and photographed leaves, flowers and young fruits. Yoav brought the samples to me in Jerusalem and several days later I took a bus to Mizpe Ramon. With the assistance of Nadav and his companion Mor we went to the gypsum outcrops near Shen Ramon where I collected and photographed many specimens (Fig. 12.4.1). Thanks to Nadav’s sharp eyes I saw a ripe fruit for the first time (Fig. 12.4.2-12.4.5), with black seeds and red tissue between them (Figs. 12.4.6, 12.4.7). The Ramon caper is hairy, like [Capparis sicula] and has similar fruit (Figs. 12.4.9-12.4.12). Several days later I went to Bet Shean where C. sicula grows. Whereas [Capparis ramonensis] grows only on undisturbed ground and only on the Triassic gypsum, C. sicula grows in Israel only on disturbed ground along roadsides and in fields in the Jordan Valley between Jericho and the lower slopes of the Golan. C. ramonensis is a creeping plant and the height of many specimens is less than 20 cm (Fig. 12.4.3). The only vertical organs in most individuals are the leaves.

When looking at the stems I photographed (at 11:15), I was happy to discover that most of the erect leaves received no direct solar radiation at that hour. I instantly recalled the property of “compass plants,” shared with [Lactuca serriola] and [Atriplex micrantha]. When thinking of the property of creeping perennial plants, I can consider only [Herniaria hemistemon] as having such a habit. I should note that the only places where I saw H. hemistemon as a dominant were outcrops of Senonian gypsum in the Judean Desert, Negev and Sinai. Further investigation of this habitat and the creeping habit could prove rewarding.

Fig.12.4.1: Capparis ramonensis creeping on the weathered Triassic gypsum in Makhtesh Ramon

A prostrate hemicryptophyte; the present year stem carries leaves, previous year dry stem whitish; two years old stem gray

Fig.12.4.2: Capparis ramonensis: the green stem, active in 2011; the whitish stem was active in 2010; the gray stems were active in 2009 and/or 2008. The vertical leaves are dark colored

Fig.12.4.3: Capparis ramonensis: a close up of a stem with 11.5 leaves that do not receive sunlight, and 3.5 leaves that do. Photographed at 11:30; the plant leaves avoid direct solar radiation during the hot hours of the day

Fig.12.4.4: C. ramonensis: The new leaves are white and reject irradiation due to their great hairiness. The flowering bud has an acute top; the sepal protecting the nectar gland is larger than the other sepals. A young fruit develops on top of a long gynophore

Blooming afternoon; the anthers are still closed

Fig.12.4.5: C. ramonensis: an opened flower in the afternoon hours. The anthers are closed and will open towards sunset

Fig.12.4.6: C. ramonensis: an opened ripe fruit. The black seeds become prominent with the red internal fruit wall and the red tissue developing among them

Fig.12.4.7: C. ramonensis: an opened fruit from the outside; the fruit wall was torn open perpendicularly to the sutures of the ovary

Fig.12.4.8: Distribution map of C. ramonensis

Fig.12.4.9: An upright shrub of Capparis sicula near highway No. 90, 1 km south of Bet Shean

Fig.12.4.10: Rounded flowering buds with a sepal of almost the same size as the other sepals, protecting the nectar gland (compare to Fig. 12.4.11)

Fig.12.4.11: Flowers of Capparis sicula in the morning hours

Fig.12.4.12: A ripe fruit of Capparis sicula splits along the sutures and veins seen on the fruit

Studying additional properties of the known capers and comparing them to those of the caper from Makhtesh Ramon convinced me that it is a new species. I named it [Capparis ramonensis] and it was published recently in the journal Willdenowia (November 2011), where its “friends” from the present chapter in my website are published. The editorial board of the scientific journal sends the manuscript to experts who read it critically and approve or reject the publication of the article. We shall be able to see, in the future, if the assemblage of the author, the reviewer, and editorial board were correct in recognizing Capparis ramonensis as an independent species. If more advanced study proves that the plant has already been described somewhere else in the world, our name will be thrown into the gigantic garbage dumpster of the world’s taxonomy.

For many years I have felt that we are doing an injustice to this species, which seems to me unique to the Triassic gypsum outcrop in the Negev. Measurement of the area of the gypsum outcrop in the geological map, by the unit for GIS at the Nature Conservancy Authority, showed that it is only 3.35 km2 (Fig. 12.4.8). It is hard to believe that there are additional places where the plant grows in the Middle East or in the rest of the world, because Triassic gypsum is found only in Makhtesh Ramon. After counting the number of individuals over a large part of the gypsum outcrops, our estimation is that we have only 100-200 specimens. Please save this treasure – a narrow endemic plant of Israel and the first to be named after Makhtesh Ramon. The other plants carrying the species epithet “ramonensis” belong to the unique landscape near Mt. Ramon and grow outside the Makhtesh. I take this opportunity to thank the devoted people who helped me in efforts to bring the scientific article to publication: Dr. Yoav Avni and Dr. Noa Avni, Nadav Taube, Eli Livne and Amnon Livne.

Plantago sabulosa Danin & Raus

This plant has accompanied me for many years and my concern and wariness delayed publicizing it. In 1994, I started to gather material for a book on the adaptation of plants to desert dunes. The occurrence of sands in four climatic zones assisted me in building up the theoretical basis for my book. My aim of examining whether my rules might be applicable, led me to make excursions to coastal sands, Haluza sands, Rotem-Yamin valley and southern Negev, and the Arava. In one place, around a tall antenna, was an area relatively protected from grazing and trampling by Bedouin and their herds, and this became a good site for that research. There were mobile sand dunes, stable and semi-stable sand sheets, and hills of lithosol where loess is an important component. Many transitional types could be found there as well. I started my study in a relatively wet year. In sites with stable fine-grained sand I found plants that resemble Plantago coronopus, with long, thin peduncles. The inflorescence spikes were also thinner than the plants I know as P. coronopus growing on loessial ground.

In the 1960’s I was living in Beer Sheva while working in vegetation mapping of the Negev. Among the built-up suburbs were many protected loess soil hills and I often took my daughter to the hills near our home before and after the first rain every year. There were carpets of Plantago coronopus skeletons close to the soil surface. Within five minutes after being wetted they raised their inflorescences (as in Fig 12.4.13), preparing for the next shower that would splash the seeds out of the protecting fruit. Since then, whenever I explained the seed dispersal mechanism to listeners (of all age groups) I spoke of athletics: the plants pass the summer with “hands at their sides” and when wetted become “hands up” (not like the flame of a candle, but obliquely, as in Fig. 12.4.13).

Thus, I knew every stage of the Plantago coronopus life cycle, and this tender Plantago from near the antenna was different. Years passed, and every time I argued with myself about taking the task seriously, I was nervous about the slim chances of success in describing the plant as an independent species. For many years we lonely botanists in Israel are isolated from the European group of taxonomist botanists, from literature sources, and from ancient herbarium material available in Europe.

On one of my visits to the Boissier Herbarium in Geneve, I looked at the type of one of the Plantago names found in literature. Edmond Boissier gave the name [Plantago crypsoides] to a plant he collected in Alexandria, Egypt, and it was very similar to the thousands of Plantago coronopus specimens I saw in the deserts of Israel and Sinai. Here too, it was difficult to argue against the common nomenclature. The history of the study of this group in Israel and its neighboring countries starts with the article by M. Zohary (1938). He considered that there was only one taxon in our area: Plantago coronopus var. crassipes. N. Feinbrun, who studied and wrote this part of “Flora Palaestina,” following R. Pilger who wrote (1937) a monograph on the genus Plantago. He considered the taxon Plantago coronopus to be a complex of subspecies and varieties. Thus, the taxon Plantago coronopus subsp. commutata is represented by two varieties: Plantago coronopus subsp. commutata var. commutata which grows in the Mediterranean zone of the country (cf. Fig. 12.4.14) and Plantago coronopus subsp. commutata var. crassipes that grows in deserts.

Lower half - ripe dry plant; upper half - 5 minutes after wetting

Fig.12.4.13: Plantago crypsoides from loessial soil south of Beer Sheva. Bottom photograph: in the dry state with “hands at the sides.” Top photograph: the “hands” directed upwards. The sepals and bracts are opened and the seeds are almost ready to be splashed out by the second rain.

Fig.12.4.14: Distribution map in Israel (by districts) of the Plantago species with dissected leaves. In the legend: the upper one is P. commutata; stars with 5 rays – P. sabulosa; stars with 4 rays – P. crypsoides

During the last few years, when I found that the Plantago with dissected leaves and tender inflorescences grows only in the sandy areas of the northern- and western Negev, I renewed my strong desire to “do something” about this matter. The Flora of Egypt, by L. Boulos, was added to the scientific work done in the Middle East. The author divided his years between Cairo and Kew Gardens in London. An expert artist in London added line drawings of most of the species. Boulos’ approach to the taxa of Plantago with dissected leaves agrees with my perception of the group. We both see independent species in the taxa found in different habitats. The three species differ in their geographical distribution (Fig. 12.4.14) and in their habitats. In the spring of 2010 I went to Secher Sands which is the north-eastern extension of Haluza Sands. Only Plantago crypsoides grow on the loessial soils all the way from Lehavim to Nahal Secher. I studied a few hills near the gasoline station 15 km south of Beer Sheva. A cross-section of these hills is presented in Fig. 12.4.15. They exist on a stony loessial lithosol exposed at their tops that are otherwise covered with stable fine-grained sand. Plantago crypsoides prevailed on the loess, whereas the sand supported the tender Plantago (which from now on will be called [Plantago sabulosa] (meaning “the sands’ plantago”).

This discovery convinced me that we are not dealing here with subspecies or varieties but with species, each of which is adapted to a specific habitat. I found P. sabulosa in the same habitat in the sands of Mash’abbe Sade, Ashalim, and the sands near Nitsana. In the summer of 2010 I collected ripe plants of the two desert species in Nahal Secher and Mash’abbe sands, containing plenty of seeds. Arriving at Neot Kedumim on a family visit, I saw Plantago commutata plants, but did not collect them on that occasion.

In December 2010 I filled up two pots with coarse sand. In one pot I put a dry specimen of P. crypsoides, and in the second P. sabulosa, 20 cm away from the first one. A short while after the first rain the Plantago plants germinated in both pots and after a month displayed considerable differences (Fig. 12.4.16). The difference in the ratio of inflorescence length over leaf length is such that might justify distinction of the two at the species level. I sent a photograph of them to Dr. Thomas Raus in the Berlin-Dahlem botanical garden. He has much experience in taxonomic research of the Mediterranean flora. He agreed to join me in the description of the species as an independent one new to science. His duties were translating the diagnosis into Latin and checking old specimens in European herbaria and in the appropriate literature. He found that the plant named Plantago commutata by N. Feinbrun should be named Plantago weldenii. He advised me to search for diagnostic characteristics in flowers, fruit, and inflorescences of the three taxa.

I made a special visit to Neot Kedumim where [Plantago weldenii] grows. It is the Mediterranean species with dissected leaves. The different characteristics investigated are summarized in Table 1, by which each of the three species may be easily determined. I measured inflorescence length and peduncle diameter in more than 20 inflorescences and found that P. sabulosa really has a 1 mm diameter peduncle whereas those of the two others are 1.5-3 mm in diameter. When the dry spike is wetted, its sepals and bracts swell and open, and their different diameter is presented in Table 1. While preparing close-up photographs of the dry spike of the three species I noticed that the infrutescence of P. weldenii is “sealed” and it is hard to see the flowers of which it is composed. The depressions among the flowers in the spikes of P. crypsoides and P. sabulosa are open. The sealed nature of the spike is repeated in all the P. weldenii specimens in the herbarium of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Thomas Raus compared the findings to the literature, concerning this property. The sealed spike of P. weldenii is regarded as “worm-shaped” (or vermicularis). The spike with prominent flowers is regarded as “necklace-shaped” (or moniliformis). In this way a very efficient diagnostic property was discovered, differentiating P. weldenii from P. crypsoides in the few districts of the country where they co-exist geographically (e.g. in Bet Shean Valley). When investigating what causes the infrutescences to look “sealed” or “opened” I found another diagnostic property. Plantago has four sepals, and the two sepals that are close to the inflorescence axis are keeled like the bottom of a boat. In P. weldenii the keel has a hyaline appendage above the sepal’s surface, 1 mm high. This appendage and the hyaline margins of the four sepals seal and cover the depressions among neighboring flowers. In this way the worm-shaped morphology is formed (Fig. 12.4.17). P. crypsoides does not have a hyaline appendage on the keel of these sepals; the height of the hyaline appendage in P. sabulosa is only 0.3 mm and does not cover the depressions among the flowers.
P. sabulosa has to withstand two kinds of environmental stress; it grows in desert areas where droughts are common. It inhabits sandy soil with a low water holding capacity. 2011 was a dry year near Revivim. The plant displayed in Fig. 12.4.18 shows its adaptation to the low quantity of water in the soil. The plant is small; its inflorescences are few and short. The small numbers of flowers produce ripe seeds.


Fig.12.4.15: A schematic cross section displaying a limestone hill covered at the top by loessial lithosol, supporting P. crypsoides. Sand covering other parts of the hill supports P. sabulosa

P. sabulosa (left) and P. crypsoides raised on sand in Jerusalem (seeds from Mashabe Sade)

Fig.12.4.16: P. sabulosa (the two plants on the left) and P. crypsoides, after growing in adjacent pots, from seeds collected near Mashabei Sade

Fig.12.4.17: Inflorescences of P. weldenii (on the left; worm-shaped); P. crypsoides (central one; necklace-shaped); and P. sabulosa (on the right; necklace-shaped)

Fig.12.4.18: Adult P. sabulosa plants that grew during a drought year near Revivim, SW Israel


Inocencio, C., Rivera, D., Ob?n, M.C., Alcaraz, F. & Barre?a, J.A. 2006. A systematic revision of Capparis section Capparis (Capparaceae). Ann. Missouri Bot. Gard., 93 (1): 122-149.