Stock Photo’s ID Error Leads to Wrong Mutants Singing the Blues


    An article published Jan 6, 2014 in The New York Times (‘Mutant Petunias Sing the Blues’) about some exciting new research on the evolution of blue color of some garden petunias was illustrated with this nice photo:

    Mutant Petunias NYT 6Jan_2014

    This is not a blue petunia, it is a morning glory.
    Screen shot from NY Times website, Jan 6, 2014, by

    Now, the only problem is that this is not a petunia. Petunias are members of the genus Petunia (simple!) in the Solanaceae, the potato family. This is unfortunately a photo of a morning glory, in the genus Ipomoea in the family Convolvulaceae, related to sweet potatoes. There are several kinds of morning glories, all in the same family, and both morning glories and petunias come in a wide array of flower color patterns.

    The very interesting research article has the right plant in its illustrations.

    petunia research article Faraco et al 2014

    Illlustration showing the mutation that causes blue petunias.
    Image (c) Faraco et al. (2014) [Cell reports 10.1016/j.celrep.2013.12.009]

    How could this happen in a  news article? Well, I guess someone at The New York Times did a stock photo search for petunia and found a nice photo, used it, and didn’t realized it was mislabeled. Stock photo archives are full of mislabeled plants. So you pay for a photo, and then it turns out to show the wrong plant – not really what you paid for. Here is the source at iStock by Getty images:

    Mutant Petunias iStockphoto

    The source of the wrong petunia image.
    Screen shot from iStock by Getty Images website, Jan 6, 2014, by


    Now, how do you tell a petunia from a morning glory? There are a couple of differences. Morning glories usually have heart-shaped leaves (like the ones on the photo above). Petunias have smaller, hairy oval-shaped leaves. Morning glories are climbers that twist their stem around something to climb higher and higher. Petunias grow like little bushy herbs, no climbing and twisting in them. The colorful petals are fused in both species into a giant flaring trumpet (the corolla) and can look similar, but the edge of the corolla is mostly even in morning glories, but uneven and notched in petunias.

    Here is a petunia:


    Petunia flower. Public domain photo by Zirguezi.

    Here is a morning glory:


    I then learned that the wrong photo was first used by the renowned science magazine Science [!!!] in their highlight of this research.  See their article titled “ScienceShot: Broken Pump turns petunias blue“, dated Jan 2, 2014. So The New York Times probably just reused the photo provide by Science. Here is the screenshot:

    Science jan2 2014

    The first use of the wrong petunia image, in Science.
    Screenshot from Science Magazine, on Jan 5, 2014, by

    Subsequently, International Science Times picked a new photo for their article about this research, and again, a morning glory is on the photo, not a petunia. Screenshot below:

    IntScienceTimes Jan 4_2014

    Another morning glory presented as a petunia. Screenshot from International Business Times website, Jan 7, 2014, by

    Science fixed the photo error within a few hours of being notified, and now display petunias with their article.  Excellent! Here is the new photo, provided by the authors of the research study, Francesca Quattrocchio and Ronald Koes.

    Science jan8 2014

    A new photo with abundant and correct petunias on the corrected Science web page.  Screenshot from Science magazine website, Jan 9, 2014, by

    Some other media organizations and companies got it right from the beginning.  Kudos to International Business Times, NBC News, Discover Magazine, Headlines and Global News.

    After being notified of the error, the New York Times removed the photo for their article and provided a correction on Jan 10, 2014. Thank you!


    Originally published on Botanical Accuracy.  Lena Struwe is a professor in botany and evolutionary biology at Rutgers University in New Jersey, where she teaches college students about the uses, biodiversity, and naming of plants from the whole world.  She also runs the blog Botanical Accuracy, where botanical mistakes in media and on commercial products are highlighted and corrected.  Her official Rutgers web page is here.


    1. This is a great article, mostly because the original New York Times article starts with “blue petunias are a rarity in nature”. Which leads me to believe that they’re probably also a rarity in stock photos. So when looking at stock pictures of petunias, they wont find many blue ones!

    2. So funny….in my pre-coffee haze, I saw the photo and thought “what a beautiful Grandpa Ott morning glory!”. Then I saw the word “petunia” in the article header and wanted to scream. Then I drank some coffee and calmed down, read the rant. I often notice discrepencies in news photos, generally of geographical shots. Glad to know I can still id a morning glory! And thanks for calling them out.

    3. You see it a lot in nature writing. Marketing text about a leopard changing his spots which feature a photo of a cheetah instead. Logo for Penquin Ice that shows a Puffin. Stories about a wildlife crisis in South Asia but the photo shows an African Elephant…I see them all the time.

    4. I wrote an article about a gardener who chose uncommon plants, all natives, illustrated with a photo of her with an uncommon native plant in the foreground (which was named in the article). But the local paper wanted a longer caption than the one I provided, so they added something about the plants in the front yard, “including lavender” (which is a common plant around here, and did not occur in that garden of uncommon plants)! They won’t correct their errors — including text that gets garbled into meaninglessness in the “editing” process — but at least I can submit comments to the online version.

    5. HAHAHAHAHAhahahahahahahaha!!!!
      This is a pet peeve of mine – the focus on flowers in plant photos. If the leaves would have been shown with the same prominence as the flower, it would have been harder to misidentify. Such an obsession with the flower! It is understandable, since the flowers are essentially the sex organs of the plant, but the leaves and the structure of the plant is what I’m usually looking at.
      Great article!

    6. I think part of what goes on in situations like this is that we’re now working on our second generation of people whose mantra is “good enough is good enough”. Standards have dropped so low that accuracy has been discarded as an unnecessary waste of time. If it kind of looks like a petunia, then that’s cool. The people in the business now by and large have never been trained in exactitude. If they say it’s a certain thing, then that’s all the exactitude that’s required. Pathetic.

    7. I wrote an article for a Florida magazine on the invasive Australian pines a few years ago and the magazine’s graphic artist used a stock photo of a real pine tree. After that I chose the stock photos to accompany my articles and had a chance to correct the final product.

    8. My daughter has a lovely kayak called the Raven. Unfortunately the decal used for the front of the boat is a falcon. Who checks this stuff?

    9. Yeah, page designers. If they don’t like the images provided with the story, off they go in search of something jazzier. Thing is…the writer should have checked the pages but if he/she were a freelancer they wouldn’t have access. Many opportunities for screw ups here.

    10. Well, people who live and die for the “gotcha!” aspects of life are just exhausting. I’m more interested in what happened at the pump….


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