Don't change your labels - was New mystery bulb

Boyce Tankersley
Fri, 08 Jul 2005 09:54:15 PDT
Hi All:

I've been reading this thread with some interest while trying to get the office in order prior to vacation.

While I absolutely agree with Leo's conclusion, I disagree with his opinion of the importance of plant collections in possession of individuals as they relate to scientific value. 

I work in a botanic garden that is in the process of collecting significant plant collections of 19 pre-selected genera. Some of these collections (some day) will be nationally significant, others will be developed to a lesser extent and become regional resources.

The sad fact is that botanic gardens have very limited resources devoted to collecting plants directly from the wild. Beyond the Convention on Biological Diversity, CITES, and other national and international protocols which regulate the movement of plants, it is a money issue.

How then do we amass these significant collections? 

In some cases we can obtain taxa from the collections of other botanic gardens and arboreta. But I must pose the question - to what end? If they intend to deaccession the plants then our accepting them makes sense. Given limited resources however, does it really make sense to have the same germplasm conserved in many institutions when much of the genetics of the wild populations are not conserved?

Some vendors have very good collection data, and of course we will obtain plants from them whenever possible - provided they agree to share the collection data - a significant number do not want to share.

Private collections that are well documented will be the source of some of our taxa. There simply are no other sources in many cases - particularly for cultivars that may not be featured in current nursery inventories. Of special importance are the 'standards' specimens obtained directly from the originator of the cultivar. These are equivalent to 'type' speciemens from naturally occurring populations and are the gold standard for documentation of cultivated taxa.

On a limited basis, we can afford to sponsor plant collecting trips. Typically one every other year. The regions we collect in are influenced by the ability to reach an agreement with the host country on the export and future use of the germplasm, the presence of trained field botanists to assist us 'in-country', the relative cost of doing business in the country, and the presence within the country of a number of taxa of interest to our horticulturist, plant breeder and curators.

Once back in the States, assuming everything meets with USDA inspections, the seeds may or may not germinate; may or may not survive in the production greenhouses; may or maynot survive transplantation to the gardens; may or may not be 'collected' by the visiting public; may or may not be deaccessioned to make room for a new exhibit. Long-term survival of plants in botanic gardens is closely tied to the presence of a staff member 'advocate' - typically a curator. Once they retire that protection typically is no longer there. In contrast, private individuals that are passionate about the collections they have amassed are typically more closely involved in the process of translating seeds into living specimens and can frequently provide a little extra TLC at critical stages.

Recently the North American Plant Collections Consortium (botanic garden members) recognized the significance of plant collections held outside botanic gardens by amending the rules to permit a botanic garden to partner with a non-botanic garden collection holder to submit a proposal to become a national collection (apologies for syntax). This is a significant step towards recognizing the existance of genetically significant collections outside of the botanic garden community. No proposals have been submitted yet, but I am hopeful that this will bring national collection status to some very significant collections that should be preserved beyond the life of the originator.

Are 'in-situ' collections ideal when compared against the diversity found in the wild? Of course not. But we live in a less-than-ideal world. The importance of genetic diversity often does not compete favorably with other uses of the land and its resources in many cases. The diversity in collections, unfortunately, is all that exists of some taxa and in other cases provides the foundation for research to study reintroduction protocols. Why collect rare taxa out of the wild (possibly edging it closer to extinction) when the germplasm has already been collected and is represented in living collections?

On to the main topic of this thread: Name changes. We've got a DNA researcher on staff and in conversations with him as well as Alan Meerow have developed an appreciation for what these analyses can suggest and what some of the weaknesses are. In the Living Plant Documentation department at Chicago Botanic Garden we have adopted a 'wait and see' approach to some of the recent taxonomic revisions. If they are adopted by a significant reference that we use (Flora of North America, USDA Plants Database, RHS Plant Finder, RHS Dictionary of Gardening), we adopt them and reference the new name to the old name in our database. I'll never forget as an intern for the National Trust for Scotland the 'out-of-favor' names on many of the plant labels. Thirty years later these same names are 'currently-in-favor'. The only guarantee, is that names will continue to change as we begin to understand more about plant diversity.

Off the soapbox :)

Boyce Tankersley
Manager of Living Plant Documentation
Chicago Botanic Garden
1000 Lake Cook Road
Glencoe, IL 60022

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