Main content area

A putative tropical American plant, Ipomoea nil (Convolvulaceae), in pre-Columbian Japanese art

Austin, D.F., Kitajima, K., Yoneda, Y., Qian, L.F.
Economic botany 2001 v.55 no.4 pp. 515-527
Ipomoea nil, paleobotany, taxonomy, phytogeography, geographical distribution, phylogeny, history, Ipomoea, tropics, seed dispersal, medicinal plants, species differences, Japan
The Heike Nôkyô, Japanese scrolls of Buddhist sutras created in 1164 AD, includes illustrations of anIpomoea that has long been identified by Japanese scholars asI. nil. What makes this occurrence ofI. nil in pre-Columbian Japan remarkable is that all of its closest relatives are American plants. We give a synopsis of the history of this economically important species. Then, using cladistic analysis, we show the relationships ofI. nil toI.eriocalyx,I. hederacea,I. indica,I. laeta,I. lindheimeri,I. meyeri, andI. pubescens. Six of these eight species inIpomoea seriesHeterophyllae are endemic to the New World.Ipomoea indica is pantropical, and may be carried by ocean currents. We offer four hypotheses as to how this putatively tropical American species may have arrived in Asia: 1)Ipomoea nil was introduced through long-distance dispersal by animals; 2)Ipomoea nil was introduced by humans in a pre-Columbian context; 3) TheIpomoea in theHeike Nôkyô scrolls does not representI. nil, but a different native Asian species; and 4)Ipomoea nil was introduced during post-Columbian times by Europeans. There are problems with accepting any of these possible alternatives.