For a plant that looks like a prickly weed, it’s getting a lot of love.
A new species of plant has been found in the remote West Texas town of Valentine. The extremely rare desert-dweller is a distant, much spinier relative of the eggplant — although it’s most likely not edible for either humans or animals.
The scrappy little growth, which is possibly poisonous and may be near extinction, was named Solanum cordicitum. That’s a Latin variation of “from the heart” — a tip of the hat to the town of 134 residents where it was discovered.
A study identifying it as a new species was published in the Aug. 1 issue off the Journal of the Botanical Research Institute of Texas. The issue was released Wednesday. Two previous examples of the plant were discovered in 1974 and 1990, but those plants were repeatedly misidentified over the years as members of several different species.
So more recently, a group of scientists and students from universities in Colorado, Utah and Texas set out to find another example of the plant and properly identify it. And in November, a graduate student with Fort Worth ties hit paydirt.
“It was my last day. I ran across it and fell to my knees,” said Jeffrey Keeling, a Fort Worth native and 2006 Aledo High School graduate who found the plant while doing research for his master’s degree in biology at Sul Ross State University. The university is in Alpine, about 60 miles southeast of Valentine.
Keeling said he spent four to eight hours a day for at least 10 days in November searching a 10-acre Valentine ranch for an example of the plant.
“Other species similar to it are perennials, but this is an annual. It blossoms once and dies, which makes it harder to find,” he said.
For such a tiny town, Valentine — a spot in the desert without so much as a stop sign, about 160 miles east of El Paso — has claims to fame and pop cultural references.
Just north of town, an ironic piece of rural public art known as the Prada Marfa store is set up along U.S. 90. Also, Valentine is about 35 miles north of the famed and mysterious Marfa lights, a favorite gathering spot for those who enjoy watching the regular appearance of unexplained lights in the night sky and exchanging paranormal theories.
And finally, each year just before Feb. 14 rolls around, the area’s tiny post office is inundated with mail sent from across the United States by those who wish to have their love letters stamped “Valentine, Texas.”
Finding a new plant is a treat for botanists. Despite the perception that most new plants are found in the tropics, Texas, Utah and California are actually hot spots for new foliage, according to the author of the study identifying the Valentine plant.
The Solanum cordicitum most likely grows only in the West Texas desert, said the author, Lynn Bohs, a University of Utah biology professor. She is hoping that residents of the area will continue to look for examples of the plant and contact a university if they find another one.
“It’s restricted to that wild, wooly part of western Texas,” she said. “Plants of this group like it there because it’s dry and ‘deserty.’ It’s also a very unexplored area of the U.S.”
The plant can grow to about 14 inches tall. Its stems and leaves — each with three or four lobes per side — are speckled with very short hairs and spines about one-fifth of an inch long.
All three specimens of Solanum cordicitum are now pressed and mounted in museums.
The new species belongs to the genus Solanum, which includes poisonous plants such as nightshade but also global food crops such as eggplants, chile peppers, tomatoes and potatoes.
The research was paid for with a five-year, $4.36 million National Science Foundation grant. The program aims to better classify and create a comprehensive inventory of all 1,500 species in the genus of flowering plants.
The first specimen was collected in October 1974 along a highway west of Fort Davis. Sixteen years later, Valentine resident Howard Elder found the second sample on his 10-acre ranch, Bohs said. At that time, a botanist wrongly identified it as a different species, and in the years that followed, it was incorrectly identified two more times.
Keeling found the third example in November on Elder’s property, not far from where Elder found the 1990 specimen.
Bohs and Keeling did much of the research, along with Stephen Stern, a faculty member at Colorado State University in Grand Junction, Colo.