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Solanum watneyi Martian
The species of bush tomato known as Solanum watneyi has purple flowers. (Christopher T. Martine / Bucknell University / CC-BY 4.0)

Timing is everything, even when it comes to naming plant species. Bucknell University botanist Chris Martine found that out last fall, when he announced that a newly identified species of Australian bush tomato would be named after Mark Watney, the central character in a little movie called “The Martian.”

The announcement about Solanum watneyi made a splash, in part because it came just as the hype over the movie was reaching a crescendo.

Now there’s a second splash: The description of the plant is being published in the journal PhytoKeys – just as “The Martian” and Matt Damon, the actor who played Mark Watney, are basking in the glow of the Academy Awards spotlight.

Martine collected his specimens of Solanum watneyi in 2014, during a six-week expedition to the Northern Territory of Australia with his wife and children. His wife, Rachel, sketched the plant for the illustration that accompanies the PhytoKeys study.

To make sure Solanum watneyi was different from a closely related species, Solanum eburneum, Martine and Bucknell student Emma Frawley grew the plants from seeds in a research greenhouse back at Bucknell in Lewisburg, Pa. The differences between the two species are laid out in PhytoKeys.

Why watneyi? Martine wanted to pay tribute to the fictional Watney, who boasted in the movie (and the book on which the movie is based) that he was Mars’ best botanist. The fact that he was the Red Planet’s only botanist – in fact, its only inhabitant at the time  – proved his case.

“This is a botanist portrayal that turns an unusually bright spotlight on authentic scientific endeavor,” Martine said in a news release. “Scientist heroes are already unusual in Hollywood, but a space-deserted protagonist who studies plants as a profession is something extraordinary.”

The choice of species is apt: Watney grew potatoes to keep him going, and it so happens that potatoes (Solanum tuberosum) belong to the same genus as Martine’s bush tomatoes.

Andy Weir, the author of “The Martian” book, endorsed the gesture. “What higher honor could a botanist like Watney ask for than to have a plant named after him?” Weir said on his Facebook page. “And to have it be a relative of the potato as well? Perfect!”

In addition to Martine and Frawley, the authors of the PhytoKeys study include Jason Cantley and Ingrid Jordon-Thaden.

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