News & media

Researcher profile: Magnus Lidén

Magnus Lidén’s research seeks to chart the biological diversity of the plant kingdom. PHOTO: MIKAEL WALLERSTEDT

“It didn’t end with Linnaeus”

As a researcher of systematic botany, Magnus Lidén has discovered around 150 new flowering plants. His field trips have included India, China and Iran and have not always been problem-free.

When I contacted Magnus Lidén to arrange an interview, he was in the middle of preparing for a trip to Iran. He will be going to the Zagros Mountains in western Iran, not far from the border with Iraq.
“I’ve been tutoring a doctoral student from the Islamic Azad University in Teheran and now we’re going on a three-week excursion,” says Magnus Lidén.
When we met at the Department of Organismal Biology some weeks later, he could add another newly discovered Dionysia species to the collection.

His interest in plants began early and has persisted over the years.
“At high school, I did my special project on plants and I’ve been committed ever since,” he says.
Magnus Lidén’s subject, systematic botany, is about charting the biological diversity of the plant kingdom. It is concerned with how species are defined, how they evolve, how many different species there are, how they are related to each other and where they grow.
“My studies have mostly focused upon the genera Corydalis and Dionysia. When I wrote my thesis on the fumewort family, which includes Corydalis, I discovered that not much research had been done into them.”
His studies of Corydalis have taken him to China and India where he and his colleagues have discovered over 100 new species.
“This just shows how much is left to do. That we’ve found so many new species within such a well-studied group as flowering plants means that there is much more to discover within less known groups as insects and fungus.”
In his day, Carl Linnaeus thought that there were around 10 000 species of flowering plants. We now believe that there are 400 000 species. Magnus Lidén himself does not know exactly how many new species he has discovered during his career but guesses almost 150.
“This is part of what drives me on – discovering new plants. Things didn’t end with Linnaeus.”

Botanical studies, however, are not just carried out in the field. At least as important is studying the collections already in scientific herbaria and most new species are discovered in this way.
“But most pleasing is finding new species in their natural habitats. To be the one to discover something which nobody else knew about before is quite a cool feeling.”
Magnus Lidén has often made new finds in inaccessible places up in mountains. Getting there requires not just resolve and strong legs but also good collaboration with local partners.
“I always publish results along with colleagues in the relevant country and travel around with local researchers.
Plants which have been collected are pressed and deposited in a public herbarium. New plant species are described in a scientific journal and given a name.
“The name often relates to what it looks like, where it grows or to the person who collected it but mythology, literature and pure nonsense are also possible sources of names.”
And yes, there are in fact a number of plants which named after Magnus Lidén.
“A colleague in India named a Corydalis after me. It’s called Corydalis magni.”

Josefin Svensson

2016-08-08

Facts: Magnus Lidén

Titel: Researcher at the Department of Organismal Biology
Age: 64
Just now: “I’m trying to summarise my knowledge and write two monographs; one on fumeworts and one on Dionysia.”
Makes me happy: Other people
Makes me angry: Arrogance
Last book read: Certainty: A Refutation of Scepticism by Peter D. Klein.
Other information: “From 2004 until autumn 2016, almost half of my work was as a botanist at the Botanical Gardens but since then it has been full-time research. I am also the editor of Symbolae Botanicae Upsalienses, the department’s monograph series.”