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Meconopsis baileyi and M. betonicifolia - reclassification

The Tibetan blue poppy, known for decades as M. betonicifolia, is a member of Series Grandes (see Classification). As the result of a recent reassessment, the well-known taxonomist, Christopher Grey-Wilson has changed the name of this widely grown plant. He has proposed (2009) re-establishing the plant under the name it was first described, i.e. M. baileyi :

"Bailey's Blue Poppy Restored", The Alpine Gardener, Bulletin of the Alpine Garden Society (2009), Vol.77, pp217-225.
The author, who is also Editor, Alpine Garden Society, has given kind permission for a pdf version of the paper to be available. It may be viewed/downloaded here
AGS_Bulletin_pg217_225.pdf.
Chris Grey-Wilson's table summarising the main reasons for the reclassification is reproduced below, together with some relevant extra pictures.

The Tibetan blue poppy was discovered by Col. F.M. Bailey in 1913 in the Rong Chu in SE Tibet and named in 1915 from a limited amount of pressed material. In 1924 Frank Kingdon Ward travelled to the same area and collected more substantial amounts of herbarium material and also seeds. In this way, M. baileyi (also widely known as Bailey's blue poppy) was introduced into western gardens. This name persisted until the publication of George Taylor's monograph of the genus in 1934

A closely allied plant had been discovered earlier (in 1886) in NW Yunnan by Pere Delavay. This plant was described and named, M. betonicifolia, in 1889, but it was not introduced into cultivation. Then, in his 1934 monograph, George Taylor maintained that the two taxa, were conspecific. Thus, as the name M. betonicifolia had priority (being the earlier validly published name!), M. baileyi became a synonym.

The position remained like this until June 2009. Then, Chris Grey-Wilson published his paper in The Alpine Gardener which reinstated the original two species, M. betonicifolia endemic to NW Yunnan and M. baileyi endemic to SE Tibet. In the light of this revision, we have amended our web-site entries by adopting the new nomenclature. Chris Grey-Wilson outlines in his paper more than 8 features that contribute to justifying the separation of the two taxa. See table and pictures below.

Not everyone is happy to accept that there are two separate species, rather believing that the two forms are related at sub-species level. One of these is Toshio Yoshida who has studied both in the wild. Others, who think that division into two distinct species is justified, include Stanley Ashmore. He has seen the Yunnan plant growing in NW Yunnan and has grown both taxa in his nursery in Alaska for a number of years and he has provided pictures to substantiate his view. Stanley's garden plants, resulting from just one wild-collected seedling, are, as far as we know, the only instance of M. betonicifolia in cultivation at the present time. See the main page on the species M. betonicifolia for the photographs.

The questioning will undoubtedly continue, as happened, for example, at a recent (October 2009) meeting of The Meconopsis Group. An examination of the range of photographs on this page and on the main species pages for M. baileyi and M betonicifolia will, it is hoped, be helpful. Another taxonomist could challenge the new nomenclature and, giving reasons as a result of further research, publish a revised naming. Unless or until this happens further debate can obviously take place as no taxonomic view can or should be set in stone.

The main features, distinguishing M. betonicifolia and M. baileyi, as specified by Chris Grey-Wilson are listed in his table:

  

M. betonicifolia

M. baileyi

Provenance

Yunnan

S.E. Tibet

Habit

Stoloniferous

Non-stoloniferous

False whorl

Absent

Present

Mature leaf lamina base

Cordate to truncate

Broad-cuneate to subtruncate

Mature basal leaves- marginal teeth

5-9 pairs

8-13 pairs

Mature basal leaf dimensions

65-135 x 28-67 mm

152-280 x 54-116mm

Style length

5-9mm

+ or - obsolete - 3.5mm

Stigma length

3.5-5.5mm

3-4mm

Fruit capsule pubescence

Glabrous (maybe a few bristles on the sutures)

Moderately to densely bristly

Fruit capsule size

25-33 x 8-9mm

(26)28-40 x 10-14mm

The most obvious of these features are probably:

  • "false whorl" - present or absent.
  • style length
  • fruit capsules - bristly or glabrous
  • habit - stoloniferous/rhizomatous or clump-forming

Pictures selected to highlight these features
The names given in the captions use the revised nomenclature, i.e. M. baileyi for plants photographed in SE Tibet and M. betonicifolia for those from Yunnan. The pictures on the main species pages showing M. baileyi and M. betonicifolia growing in the wild will help readers to study further the reasons for Chris Grey-Wilson's change in nomenclature. But, of course, they will not have the benefit of seeing the numerous herbarium specimens examined by him. A point of interest worth commenting on is that even when growing in the same area the plants can be quite variable. Reference can also be made to M.baileyi in cultivation.

1. M. baileyi, SE Tibet
False whorl: present
Style short.

2. M. baileyi, SE Tibet Site 1†
False whorl: present
Capsule: short dense bristles Style: short

3. M. betonicifolia, Yunnan
False whorl: absent

4. M betonicifolia, Yunnan
False whorl: absent
Capsule: glabrous
Style: long

5 & 6. M.baileyi, SE Tibet, Sites† 1 & 2 (left-right)
Capsule bristles: Site 1: short & dense,
Site 2: less dense.
Styles: Site 1: short, Site 2: longer.

7 & 8(Close up). M. betonicifolia in Yunnan
False whorl: Is it absent?
Capsules: glabrous. Styles: long

9. M. betonicifolia, Yunnan
Habit: rhizomatous

10. M. baileyi, SE Tibet
Habit: clump-forming

11. M. baileyi, SE Tibet
Habit: Is this rhizomatous?

† Sites 1 & 2 are 25km apart on either side of the Serkyhem La in SE Tibet

No leaf features are high-lighted as it is difficult to show these convincingly in the pictures available.