Himalayan Blackberry Confusion

I’m confused what to do with the Himalayan Blackberry observations in California.
[I intentionally used only the common name in that sentence.]

It appears there is confusion regarding the common name: “Himalayan Blackberry” and the species: Rubus armeniacus and Rubus bifrons, at least with the west coast observations. I am guessing this happened because they share a common name. If you Google: “Himalayan blackberry California” you get many matches that give you the Himalayan Blackberry, Rubus armeniacus. There are significant sources that treat R. armeniacus and R. bifrons as synomyms.

Because major sources treat these names as synonyms including Jepson eFlora and Flora of North America, my practice has been to identify these blackberries as R. armeniacus unless they already had an idenfication of R. bifrons; in those cases I would merely “agree”.

However, another iNatter has provided information that challenges the possibility that they are synonyms and that they are indeed separate species but only R. armeniacus occurs in California.

@lehacarpenter provided these links:
https://www.fs.fed.us/database/feis/plants/shrub/rubspp/all.html
http://bonap.net/Napa/TaxonMaps/Genus/County/Rubus
Of note, the FEIS-USDA page asserts that R. armeniacus “is considered the most invasive nonnative shrub on the West Coast” whereas “Rubus bifrons is not considered highly invasive.”

Now I suspect every time I agreed with an observation of R. bifrons I was making a mistake and I should have instead used R. armeniacus. I wonder if all the California R. bifrons observations are incorrect and are R. armeniacus instead.

I can only speculate but I suspect many were misidentified this way because the user was choosing the common name: “Himalayan Blackberry”.

If most of the “Himalyan Blackberry” plants in the United States are the invasive R. armeniacus and only a few are the not-as-invasive R. bifrons shouldn’t iNaturalist have used “Himalayan Blackberry” for R. armeniacus instead? To avoid confusion, should the name “Himalayan Blackberry” be removed from R. bifrons? A vast majority (maybe 85%) of the R. bifrons observations are in the western part of the United States and Canada. All of these are likely R. armeniacus. Only 10% of the R. bifrons observations are in the eastern parts of the United States where the USDA says R. bifrons exists.

Should I go back and change all my previous R. bifrons identifications to R. armeniacus? Usually, I only do these ids in California and Oregon.

I do not know what to say about the few states where the USDA says the two species overlap.

For additional reference, here are the distribution maps from the USDA plants database:
https://plants.usda.gov/home/plantProfile?symbol=RUAR9
https://plants.usda.gov/home/plantProfile?symbol=RUBI

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I’m not sure about these two taxa specifically, but Rubus taxonomy is quite a nightmare with different regional treatments splitting, lumping, and accepting different taxa than other treatments. I try to avoid them most of the time unless I’m working under a strong regional treatment. Just warning you that in many cases there is no “right answer” as the taxonomy often remains controversial.

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One option is just to put these as “Complex Rubus fruticosus” until someone can clarify the mess. There are older discussions on this from the old Google Group: https://groups.google.com/g/inaturalist/c/QP58-PT2Iaw

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R. armeniacus is too invasive in California to ignore. I second the strategy of removing the “Himalayan blackberry” common name from R. bifrons. Regardless of whether some people consider these two species to be the same (and as far as I can tell, only a Wikipedia article makes that claim), as long as they are separate species in iNat, we gain nothing by conflating them based on a common name.

There is also the further issue of “European Blackberry Complex” being used as a catch-all for these two species. According to every source I could find, that intentionally-ambiguous name was created to resolve disputes about whether R. plicatus and R. ulmifolius (and/or various cultivars of those two) were the same species. As best as I can tell, the complex has nothing to do with R. bifrons, or R. armeniacus. I’m not sure how it got attached to those latter two, but would love to know.

Thanks in advance to anyone willing to take an interest in this!

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I don’t get the impression that R. fruticosus is supposed to be a catch-all for all blackberries. Can you point me to better information on this?

Thank you!

I’m also confused by the European Bramble Complex.

According to the Wikipedia article: “In biology, a species complex is a group of closely related organisms that are so similar in appearance that the boundaries between them are often unclear.”

This seems to make sense: create a complex including only R. bifrons and R. armeniacus.

But there are 24 different species included in the European Bramble Complex. The three most common are: R. armeniacus, R. bifrons, and R. laciniatus. I don’t think R. laciniatus is “similar in appearance” with the other two.

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As for what Rubus fruticosus agg. covers, according to Stace (2019) New Flora of the British Isles.

Most of the taxa of subgenus Rubus form an extremely complex, largely apomictic group (sect. Glandulosus), often known collectively as R. fruticosus L. agg. 2 other sections (Rubus and Corylifolii) are often included within this aggregate, but they are probably derived from ancient and some recent hybrids between it and R. idaeus or R. allegheniensis, and R. caesius, respectively.

R. armeniacus is in sect. Glandulosus so would definitely be part of R. fruticosus agg.

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I think historically, R. armeniacus was known as Himalayan blackberry. Those two names are paired together in Pojar & Mackinnon’s Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast, which omits R. bifrons entirely. I don’t know when/how “Himalayan Blackberry” came to be paired with R. bifrons.

In an observation I IDed a few years back, @sedgequeen commented that that Flora of North America had a plan to unite the two species under R. bifrons. I’m not sure if there’s an update on that. On another observation, though, @carexobnupta (not sure if he’s active on the forum) said that the Oregon Flora Project had decided to move forward with just R. bifrons.

Adding to ID confusion in California is R. praecox. The Cal Invasive Plants Council, at least in this newsletter from 4 years ago, prefers to evaluate R. praecox, R. bifrons, and R. armeniacus as separate species (article starts on pg. 12).

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Thank you for the lead! I just found this, in Flora of North America, in which the sentiment seems to be to combine the two under R. bifrons at least until someone has done a serious DNA study:

http://www.efloras.org/florataxon.aspx?flora_id=1&taxon_id=242417158

Can anyone tell me what guidance iNat supports regarding rules for flowering plant taxa? It seems that what FNA is calling a “conservative approach” (combining the two until further notice) would be the opposite of conservative when it comes to database entries of observations, since two potentially-distinct species umbrella’d under a single name could never be programmatically teased apart (except roughly, by atlases), while on the other hand, data for two distinct species is useless if there is no path to telling one from the other, and people are just entering whatever they think is right. I would love to know how this “prickly” sort of problem is handled in iNat.

The other avenue I think is worth pursuing would be to find out on what basis the sources I shared from the US government claim their certainty of two distinct species, with distinct habits and ranges. It’s hard to believe they were just making it up.

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I did some digging and found this stellar observation of R. bifrons from an iNat user in Texas, in the “official” bifrons area. If anyone familiar with our California R. armeniacus can see any difference between this and our blackberry, please tell me, because to me they at least appear identical (of course, that’s without seeing the flowers/fruit).

https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/61760274

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I believe the standard for plants is to use Plants of the World Online, with room for deviations when someone presents the appropriate citations, with additional discussion. I’m not sure if plants have a dedicated curator the way birds and a few other taxa do.

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The newsletter article I shared in my previous post has a guide for distinguishing R. armeniacus. R. bifrons, and R. praecox (as they wanted to evaluate each species separately). They used prickle morphology, stamen length, and petal proportions to distinguish between the three species. It might be worth comparing Rubus populations in different areas under those standards to see if there’s any trends.

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I am not an expert on blackberries, and while I believe all of these blackberries can be correctly included in the complex, it would be great to see a cleaner solution. There are a few resources linked in the old Google Group thread that might be worthwhile looking at:

Some history of the Jepson Manual treatment

Taxonomic study indicating that R. armeniacus and R. praecox occur in W Oregon, while R. bifrons not introduced to N America (!)

Another paper describing the taxonomic confusion

A paper listing 15 taxa of R. fruticosus Complex that occur in Australia

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Taxonomy of the Blackberry That Ate the Pacific Northwest is highly controversial. You can justify calling most of our plants Rubus bifrons or Rubus armeniacus, depending on whether you consider those to be one species or two – differences are minor. Really minor. I’ve reached a point of I Don’t Care. I’ll agree to either name. If consensus is ever reached, which I doubt will happen, people who want to use iNaturalist observations of them will have to review them all, much though they’d rather not.

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I have removed the common name from R. bifrons, since we are not to have two common names for separate species if at all possible, and it seems like consensus is that it should apply only to R. armeniacus

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Thanks for removing the common name “Himalayan Blackberry” from R. bifrons.

I see the name is now “Himalayan-Berry”. I think that still causes confusion. Yesterday, I identified an observation as R. armeniacus. A few hours later the observer added the identification as R. bifrons. When I asked he wrote: “I just know it by Himalayan blackberry” so when I asked the question:

What did you do to pick “Himalayan-Berry” Rubus bifrons in your choice? Did you start by typing in “Himal…” and it gave you the choice? Or did you click to get the iNaturalist computer vision choice and you saw “Himalayan-Berry” as the second choice?

His reply was: “yes the second one”

As long as users are shown “Himalayan…” they will continue to pick it by the common name. Is there a way to change it so that when you ask for suggestions you are not presented with a choice that says: “Himalayan-anything”? I don’t know what to call it. If you give it the alternate name (or primary name if you believe Wikipedia) you would call it European blackberry but that conflicts with R. vestitus.

2nd comment:
My previous practice seems to match @sedgequeen. I had to laugh at the name she used. I still have not decided if I will continue that practice, lean even more towards R. armeniacus, or something else.

3rd comment:
I’m still confused why is Rubus fruticosus a complex and not a subgenus or section? One of the definitions presented by Wikipedia calls this a collection of two sections. How can a complex contain a section? Then, if people could agree on a section consisting of just R. armeniacus and R. bifrons there would be a cleaner description.

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If there is a taxon consisting of R. bifrons and R. armeniacus, it should probably contain R. ulmifolius as well, since R. bifrons is likely more closely related to R. ulmifolius than to R. armeniacus (Carter et al 2019; Source: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6933950/pdf/fpls-10-01615.pdf)

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Does this study confirm that R. bifrons and R. armeniacus are genetically-distinct species? Or is it more likely that R. ulmifolius is somehow phenotypically different to the two, while genetically the same? Or are they just all so close that they might end up subspecies? Sorry if any or all of my questions are naïve–I am not up on genetics at all!

On other points, with the exception of how I have been naming observations in California, I agree wholeheartedly with the last post by @onyxrat.

I would also like to just add that at least in California, the question is important in large part because of the invasive behavior of R. armeniacus, since it’s likely that several diversely-focused organizations could make good use of information mapping the behavior of R. armeniacus, in particular. I get that it’s still possible to either lump the two together, or look at each and every record, but my concern is that many would not know to do this, and there isn’t always as much communication between disciplines as there ideally could be. And is it true that R. bifrons is not invasive (as implied by the article I shared with @onyxrat), or is that just a matter of the same species acting differently in different locations? And if the latter, well, that could be really helpful to know and study, too!

Also, @psweet, thank you for the info on how plant taxa evolve on iNat. All I had to rely on was the pattern for butterfly data, and the effect of that, of course, is chaos. :grin:

I’m a bird geneticist so no expert on Rubus, but the study design didn’t really address species boundaries - they could be separate species, or subspecies, and it would give similar patterns genetically in the analyses done so far. To figure that out, we would need to sequence DNA from many more individuals from throughout the range of the three “species”. It wasn’t really discussed in the paper, but from the figures it looked like bifrons, armeniacus, and ulmifolius are extremely closely related, I would want to see a phylogeny with many individuals from each species, and based on many different genes, in order to see whether the three cluster into consistent groups and if they are well-isolated from each other. DNA sequencing is getting cheaper and easier each year so maybe somebody will tackle this at some point!

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I’ve also removed Himalayan Berry, since it appears to be used mostly for Hippophae rhamnoides, at least in the supplements industry.

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