The knowledge of biodiversity in allegedly well-known places is not as complete as one would expect and its detailed study by researchers continues to offer surprises, is what we find out in a new study of the flora of south-central Spain.
Now, Spanish botanists from Pablo de Olavide University (Seville, Spain) have described a new plant species of the papyrus family (Cyperaceae) restricted to the La Mancha region in south-central Spain. This region is in fact well-known for classic literary fans, who might recognise the name as the main setting in Miguel de Cervantes’ (1547–1616) masterpiece Don Quixote.
The epic novel, which tells the story of the life and journeys of Alonso Quijano, a Spanish hidalgo (nobleman), who becomes the knight-errant Don Quixote de la Mancha, is commonly considered to be one of the greatest literary works ever written, with its number of editions and translations thought to be only surpassed by those of the Bible.
The new species, now scientifically known as Carex quixotiana, belongs to sedges of the genus Carex, a group of herbs included in the papyrus family (Cyperaceae). The classification (taxonomy) of these plants is difficult, as it is a highly diverse and widely distributed genus, whose species are frequently hard to tell apart. In fact, C. quixotiana has itself evaded the eyes of expert botanists for decades, because of its close resemblance to related species.
“Cryptic species are frequent in complex plant groups, such as sedges, and integrative studies encompassing different data sources (e.g. morphology, molecular phylogeny, chromosome number, ecological requirements) are needed to unravel systematic relationships and accurately describe biodiversity patterns,”says Dr. Martín-Bravo, senior author of the paper.
After a preliminary genetic study pointed to something odd about specimens of what was later to be known as Carex quixotiana, the authors set off on exhaustive field collecting campaigns across La Mancha. As they studied additional populations of the plant in further detail, using morphology, phylogenetics, and chromosome number, the scientists confirmed that they were looking at a species previously unknown to science. Understandably, the distribution range of the newly discovered species, restricted to the mountain ranges surrounding La Mancha (Sierra Madrona and Montes de Toledo), made the authors think about Cervantes’ masterpiece.
So far only known from 16 populations, Carex quixotiana prefers habitats with high water availability, such as small streams, wet meadows and riverside (riparian) forests.
Since little is known about the species’ demographics, including the number of mature individuals in the wild, further investigation is required to determine its conservation status. However, based on what they have learnt so far about the species, the authors of the present study assume that:
In conclusion, the scientists point to their results as yet another proof of how much there is still to learn about Earth’s biodiversity, even when it comes to supposedly well-known organisms, such as flowering plants, and countries, whose flora is presumed to be fully documented. The “Flora Iberica”, for example, which covers Spain and Portugal, has only recently been finalised, the team reminds us.
Benítez-Benítez C, Jiménez-Mejías P, Luceño M, Martín-Bravo S (2023) Carex quixotiana (Cyperaceae), a new Iberian endemic from Don Quixote’s land (La Mancha, S Spain). PhytoKeys 221: 161-186. https://doi.org/10.3897/phytokeys.221.99234
One thought on “Don Quixote gives his name to a new plant species only known from La Mancha, Spain”
1) the name as the main setting in Miguel de Cervantes’ (1547–1616) masterpiece Don Quixote, you mean, but Miguel de Cervantes was not the writer of the Don Quixote, Francis Bacon was with 4 members of the Sireniacal Gentlemen. So it was originally an English novel.
2) “the knight-errant Don Quixote de la Mancha,” you quote correctly, but “La Mancha (Sierra Madrona and Montes de Toledo), made the authors think about Cervantes’ masterpiece,” you continue, but La Mancha did not exist in Cervantes’ time nor in the real writers’ time.
The area where the story takes place was called Mancha, but Don Quixote was not named after La Mancha with a capital letter -L- (47): that indicates an administrative area of modern Spain. Previously, Mancha was only an administrative whole that remained under the control of the Taifa (kingdom) of Toledo. The oldest recorded mention of the toponym ‘Mancha de Montearagón’ is from 1237. No capital letter for the region called Mancha, a plain where mainly spawning grass grew, a dry grass species, which the Arabs called manχa: so, Don Quixote of the Manχa, of the flounder! In 1691, so 85 years after the books on Don Quixote, a region has been established called La Mancha with Toledo as capital. I wouldn’t be surprised if this name has caused a furore thanks to the books about Don Quixote and that Spain therefore decided to call the area that way and elevate it to a real official region. Of course there will be another joke behind the name: ( what’s in a name?) Don Quixote is a Knight of the Mancha. It is no coincidence that at the time the word Mancha corresponded to the name of the English Channel, which is called in French “ la Manche”, the sleeve. It has been named as a metaphor for the estuary between France and England. Don Quixote is therefore both (land)knight of the grass and (see)knight of the channel: Don Quixote of the Manche. Throughout the Spanish first part the name is always written as Don-Quixote de la Mancha, in the second part also Don Quixote de la Mancha. Never Don Quixote de La Mancha.. that is the mistake every translator makes. The original title is: The history of the valorous and wittie Knight-Errant Don-Quixote of the Mancha.
And the third meaning, the one with a smile: la mancha is Spanish for the spot, the stain, the dirt-mark.
Every name in the DQ has meanings: ‘A name in his conceit harmonious, strange and significative.’ DQI p.7
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