Articles in Nature on Importance of Botanical Gardens

Lee Poulsen
Wed, 12 Apr 2006 17:16:23 PDT
Some interesting articles showed up in today's issue of Nature on 
Botanical Gardens, taxonomy, and even a plug for amateur gardeners 
helping them to save species that might go extinct.

--Lee Poulsen
Pasadena, California, USDA Zone 10a…


Nature 440, 845 (13 April 2006)  | doi:///10.1038/440845a

The constant gardeners

While pottering away in a garden near you, botanists are playing an 
increasingly sophisticated role in studying plant diversity. They 
should continue to broaden their scientific reach.

Thank goodness for botanical gardens. Without them, who would compile 
the flora of Mesoamerica? Who would identify a rare member of the 
Melastomataceae family, or determine the most likely pollinator for a 
newly discovered orchid? Imagine the intellectual poverty of a world in 
which no plant researcher studied anything but the model organism 
Arabidopsis thaliana, an unprepossessing mustard cress.

Universities do still house some taxonomists and whole-organism 
biologists. But as they retire, they are ever more likely to be 
replaced with geneticists or a similarly fashionable brand of molecular 
biologist, and their herbaria shunted off to the nearest botanical 
garden. "The number of well-trained taxonomists is shrinking," warns 
one leading systemic biologist. "They are a dying breed."

Not that the research interests of the gardens themselves are by any 
means confined to taxonomy (see page 860). Many are also now involved 
in molecular research, much of it addressing spheres that are neglected 
elsewhere because they lack commercial significance. The agricultural 
or pharmacological potential of plants naturally dominates the research 
agendas of plant scientists in industrial companies and, increasingly, 
in university botany departments as well. That leaves the botanical 
gardens to study the astonishing diversity of plant species, their 
relations to each other and their evolutionary origins. That's a 
massive research agenda for which little public financial support is 

Nonetheless, gardens have got on with their work in their usual 
unassuming way. Many of their botanists are able to follow their own 
interests more closely than their grant-dependent peers at 
universities. Intellectually, that's often a good thing, but 
politically it has crept into the gardens' institutional culture and 
has sometimes prevented them from engaging as fully as they might with 
the outside world. They often enjoy good relations with universities 
and the public, but there is room for even more active participation in 
debates on topics such as climate change, deforestation and 

Some ambitious and outward-looking projects are going forward at the 
larger gardens. The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh is planning a 
£14-million ($24-million) education centre, for example. And at the New 
York Botanical Garden next month, a $23-million research centre will 
open whose work will include the investigation of the function of plant 
genes. Some academic botanists criticize this new direction as 
duplicative and a distraction from the garden's core work. But the 
genetic investigations pursued at botanical gardens are unlikely to 
overlap with university studies. Amy Litt, head of genomics at the 
centre, will investigate such diverse questions as the origins of 
seeds, the differences between hard and soft fruit, and the genes that 
determine the shapes of flowers, in part by sequencing genomes of 
plants such as the snapdragon.

The centre is part of the New York Plant Genomics Consortium, which 
includes the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, New York University and the 
American Museum of Natural History. The collaboration marks an effort 
by the garden to look beyond its own walls; it should be watched 
closely by those botanical gardeners who worry about possible 
marginalization within the wider research community. Some isolation has 
been self-imposed: there's a kernel of truth in the stereotype of the 
discipline as comprising a collection of reclusive eccentrics spending 
a lifetime on their particular interests.

As well as looking outside, botanical gardens need to work more closely 
with each other to pursue the systematic collection of information 
about plants. Many gardens are loosely linked through an umbrella 
group, the Botanic Gardens Conservation International, based at Kew in 

But this group focuses on conservation, not, for example, on the 
construction of databases. Several major gardens would each like their 
own systems to form the backbone of a global database. Closer 
cooperation is needed if knowledge of plants is to be integrated in a 
form that can be accessed by all botanists. It is past time for the 
largest gardens — at New York, Kew and St Louis — to work directly with 
each other to obtain financial backing for such a project.


News Feature

Nature 440, 860-863 (13 April 2006)  | doi:///10.1038/440860a

Plant science: Gardens in full bloom

Emma Marris
	Emma Marris is a Washington correspondent for Nature.

In a world of declining biodiversity, botanical gardens are coming into 
their own — both as storehouses of rare plants and skills, and 
increasingly as centres of molecular research. Emma Marris reports.

At this moment there are a couple of ladies, one in her sixties, one in 
her eighties, walking through a greenhouse, their silver heads 
surrounded by hanging orchids in oranges, scarlets and lavender-tinged 
whites. These ladies, orchid-fancying mother and daughter, are bound to 
be there, because they were there in every garden visited during the 
writing of this feature. They are the embodiment of the botanical 
garden as popularly imagined: cosy, slightly old-fashioned, 
detail-oriented, perhaps a touch eccentric. But these greying dryads do 
not tell the whole story.

Tucked behind the palmhouses of the world's larger gardens are 
buildings filled with industrial wheeled shelves for mounted plant 
specimens, scientists sitting round-shouldered over microscopes, and 
growth chambers housing rows and rows of seedlings.

Botanical gardens have always been repositories of knowledge as well as 
cuttings. For centuries they were the heart of botanical scholarship. 
These days, most plant scientists work in academic settings, and 
increasingly study plants at a molecular level not obviously suited to 
the setting of greenhouses and flowerbeds. The challenge for botanical 
gardens is to maintain a place in the scientific world while remaining 
true to their hybrid heritage, a heritage that encompasses aesthetics, 
exploration and education as much as academic study.

The two traditional scientific specialities of botanical gardens are 
plant taxonomy — the discovering, naming and sorting of species — and 
whole-organism biology — the study not of the ecosystem of the wild 
tulip, or the cellular functions that the tulip shares with a bunch of 
other plants, but of the tulip itself. Now, several of the world's 
larger gardens are broadening their focus and undertaking the sort of 
molecular investigation more typically found in research universities. 
Some botanists worry that this move stretches resources that would be 
better focused on the gardens' traditional strengths.

But researchers within the gardens argue that a botanical garden, 
filled with so much knowledge of plant diversity and bristling with 
plant life, is the ideal place to do such work. As head of molecular 
systematics at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, southwest London (see 
'Kew Gardens'), Mark Chase pores over DNA and RNA to probe plant 
relationships. But he'll still pop out on a spring morning to look at 
the garden's many irises. He calls it "reciprocal illumination". 
Looking at the plant, then at the molecules, then back at the plant, 
"you really see things you hadn't noticed previously," he says.

Michael Donoghue is a university plant systematist who, although firmly 
rooted at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, understands the 
lure of working in gardens. He argues that molecular systematics are 
"part of the gardens' mission to understand plants in all their glory". 
The New York Botanical Garden's grand foray into genomics — the 
$23-million Pfizer Research Center is opening there next month — may 
"raise some eyebrows", Donoghue says, "but why not endeavour to do all 
you can?" He adds that his counterparts at gardens are able to tackle 
much meatier projects for longer periods: "We go from grant to grant; 
at the gardens, they have a longer view and really devote a lot of time 
and energy to one mission."
Keeping up traditions

But Richard Olmstead, a molecular systematist at the University of 
Washington in Seattle, echoes the worry in the botany world that such 
moves could diminish the gardens' focus on taxonomy and whole-organism 
biology. "Insofar as any of their research is diverted towards more 
modern approaches away from those more traditional approaches, those 
traditional things are not going to get done, because no one is picking 
them up," he says.

No one is picking them up because there is, at the moment, no money in 
it. "Many people follow the money down to the molecular end," says 
Peter Crane, director of Kew, referring to the way that botany is often 
practised in academia these days. "It's a bit of a shame. We need a 
more integrated plant science." Edward Schneider, president of the 
Botanical Society of America, and a scientist at the Santa Barbara 
Botanic Garden agrees: "We need to preserve the understanding that a 
plant is more than just a bag of genes."

Membership in the American Society of Plant Taxonomists has been steady 
over the past ten years. Nevertheless, there does seem to be a want of 
expertise on plant diversity in the average university department. "The 
number of people does not seem adequate to deal with the challenges 
that face the field," says Peter Raven, president of the Missouri 
Botanical Garden in Saint Louis (see 'Missouri Botanical Garden', 
overleaf). When universities want to compare species to deepen their 
understanding of a molecular finding, he argues, they increasingly turn 
to botanical gardens for help.

Some think that universities have abandoned the whole-organism 
approach. Dennis Stevenson, vice president for botanical science at the 
New York Botanical Garden, has a guess as to why: "Their faculty can't 
go running off into the jungle." In contrast, many botanical gardens' 
researchers start their projects with a vigorous mosquito-slapping tour 
through the remote and fecund places of Earth in search of specimens. 
"Most of the world's plant-diversity specialists are in the north, and 
most of the plant diversity is in the south," explains Crane. The most 
tangible fruits of these trips are large numbers of dried plants 
mounted on cards and bits of DNA in tubes filled with silica gel.

As well as being an insurance policy in the event of rare plants going 
extinct, the DNA samples feed into molecular work. The mounted plants 
end up in herbaria — libraries of many millions of plants that are 
consulted by scientists. Although many university departments still 
have herbaria, they are increasingly becoming concentrated in botanical 
gardens. "Botanical gardens are becoming depositories of herbaria, 
because universities are moving in a more molecular direction," says 

Jim Solomon runs the Missouri herbarium. He says that when he feels 
anxious or stressed he likes to sit down and sort a box of uncatalogued 
specimens. The plants last a surprisingly long time, attached to paper 
backing with linen strips or Elmer's glue, and, although often rather 
brown, can retain a few lively characteristics. A maple specimen — Acer 
macrophyllum — collected in 1892 by Emma Shumway in Seattle, 
Washington, looked as if it had been caught falling from the tree just 
seconds ago. "As habitats are modified, as plants go extinct, these 
collections will become increasingly important as a record of what 
these things looked like," says Solomon.

Although preserving the vanished is important, preserving the 
all-but-vanished is even more so. Botanical gardens support 
conservation in two ways. They study plant diversity and establish what 
is rare where. And they grow rare plants and keep their seeds. Cosmos 
atrosanguineus, the chocolate cosmos plant, can now be smelt and seen 
only in gardens such as Kew, because it is extinct in its native 
Mexico. Unfortunately, all the chocolate cosmos plants alive today seem 
to be cuttings of a single plant — so they are 'self-incompatible' and 
won't reproduce. Preserving genetic diversity is a large part of the 
gardens' agenda. "There is an increased focus on not just having one 
individual with a label on it, but creating ex situ populations of 
threatened plants," says Pete Hollingsworth, director of genetics and 
conservation at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.

The London-based Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BCGI) 
keeps some 600 member gardens in touch with each other on conservation 
matters. "I would say that the vast majority of our members have some 
sort of research programme," says Suzanne Sharrock, director of public 
awareness and understanding at BCGI. "In some cases it would be a very 
small programme, but the fact that they are botanical gardens rather 
than just public parks indicates that they are trying to be something 
more than a nice place to have a picnic." Botanical gardens in 
Australia, South Africa, Brazil, and, increasingly, China, are praised 
by botanists from Europe and North America for their garden science and 
conservation activities. Sharrock thinks that if they all spoke with 
one voice, that voice might be pretty loud. "There are botanical 
gardens in every country in the world, and in every major city," says 
Sharrock. "They have the potential to be a very powerful force."

At the Second World Botanic Gardens Congress in 2004, the delegates 
adopted 20 goals for 2010 in support of the Convention on Biological 
Diversity's Global Strategy for Plant Conservation. Among these goals 
is doubling the number of "trained botanical-garden staff working in 
conservation, research and education". Another is compiling "a working 
list of known plant species".

Various bits and pieces of such a possible database already exist. The 
International Plant Name Index strives for comprehensiveness in 
cataloguing the seed plants of the New World and Australia, but it only 
lists names. Raven thinks that his garden's database of vascular plants 
(pretty much everything except mosses and liverworts), TROPICOS, might 
be "an important part of a final strategy", pointing users to published 
work on the species, and in some cases to maps of ranges.

Plans for the ultimate database inevitably lead to talk of DNA 
barcoding. If species-specific differences in defined DNA sequences 
were matched with a species name in some kind of database, an untrained 
person could use a sequencer or a DNA-chip to read the barcode in a 
botanical sample, send it to the database, and get back a name and all 
other necessary taxonomic data.

Apart from its undoubted geeky appeal, such a technology would in 
principle save a lot of time and drudgery. Carrying out identifications 
for colleagues at home and round the world is time consuming and 
uncompensated. The use of barcoding would free up people to do their 
own research.

But Raven is cautious about such a scheme. He thinks that many 
lifetimes could be consumed setting the system up — time that would be 
spent making lists rather than learning anything about the organisms. 
"There are many millions of nematode species," he says, choosing an 
animal example. "If I had a slide of every nematode in the world, what 
would I do with it?" Similarly, what would one do with barcodes for the 
13,000 or so moss species?
Gardener's tips

There is, after all, so much else to look at, especially when one has 
the intellectual freedom that a large botanical garden can provide. 
Their widespread sources of funding and, in some ways, more forgiving 
range of stakeholders to please, mean that gardens can consider long 
projects and quirky studies that universities would be hard pushed to 
take on. In Missouri for example, 42% of the funds allocated to 
research comes from tickets, memberships and sales, and 58% comes from 
government grants, private donors and foundations. You can be "more 
creative", says Ken Cameron, an orchid specialist and head of molecular 
systematics at the New York Botanical Garden. "At a university, you 
don't really have a choice. You have to toe the line and study one of 
these model organisms." He prefers to study "weirdo little orchids that 
nobody cares about".

At the gardens, researchers also enjoy a great deal of public support. 
Amateur gardeners want to know how to keep their plants alive and 
blooming, and look to the professionals for help, as well as for 
inspiration. They are also often curious about the microscopic details 
and ecosystem-level stories behind plants. This makes botanical gardens 
ideal forums for fostering the public understanding of science. The 
Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh is raising funds for a building designed 
specifically to mediate interactions between scientists and the public. 
This will open "with a bit of luck" in 2009, says Stephen Blackmore, 
regius keeper of the garden. "A lot of people want to hear about the 
research," says Blackmore, adding that scientists in botanical gardens 
seem to be regarded as "a good source of reliable, factual information" 
on everything from climate change to genetically modified organisms.

The exchange of information is not all one way. Amateur gardeners can 
have valuable information to impart. "For many gardeners, the 
information is in their heads. The tricks they use to propagate plants 
— how to grow a pineapple in Cornwall — don't always get written down," 
says Crane. The value of this knowledge has only just been realized. 
Crane says he sometimes looks at the churchyard of Saint Anne's, 
opposite Kew's main offices, and thinks of the lost skills buried with 
generations of gardeners there.

Raven feels that amateur gardeners could do more to keep rare and 
endangered plants alive. "There is probably more scope for scientists 
to get involved with gardening. I could see a lot of room for home 
gardeners maintaining genetic diversity in a world that's becoming more 
homogenous." And why not have them do research too? Some botanical 
gardens, including the one in Edinburgh, are already trying to track 
the subtleties of climate change by comparing various plant milestones 
year on year. Bringing home gardens into such networks would greatly 
increase the geographical reach of Edinburgh's researchers. Raven even 
imagines gardeners being issued with genetically identical indicator 
plants to make the data set really tidy.

Gardens may thus have a functional role in the struggle to understand 
environmental change. But as important or more so, say Crane and 
Blackmore, is their inspirational role: the model they provide of how 
to relate to the flora of the Earth. Metaphorical thinking about the 
plant world has swung like a pendulum over the past decades. A hundred 
years ago, humans saw plants as resources to be deployed in ways that 
best served man — whether in amber fields of grain or in formal 
strolling gardens. With the rise of environmentalism, the view that 
humans should let nature run its course and the wild run wild has 
gained strength.

But the wild, these days, is rather piebald. Roads and wires and 
concrete interrupt it almost everywhere. Some of the major constituents 
in various ecosystems are all but gone. So to keep what's there, it may 
be necessary to actively care for what is left, rather than to leave it 
be. "Most ecosystems are not what they were, and they have to be 
managed," says Crane. And care is the hallmark of the gardener.

Blackmore says that only "long-term thoughtful intervention" will 
protect plant diversity. And in the future, with climate change 
increasingly apparent and familiar cycles out of whack, only a 
competent, calm cadre of scientific gardeners may be able to tell the 
world how to keep the plants we rely on going, he says. "Botanical 
gardens are really the only places at the moment that have the skills 
to adapt the landscape to those changing conditions. Maintaining 
biodiversity in the face of climate change is going to be a very active 

Box 1. Kew Gardens

Founded: Kew Gardens became a botanic garden in the modern sense in 

Research budget: £8 million (US$14 million).

Famous for: The Palm House (pictured right), designed by Decimus Burton 
and Richard Turner in the 1840s; the ten-storey pagoda, built in 1762, 
which is open to visitors this spring and summer; and its winter orchid 

Peter Crane (pictured right), director of Kew Gardens, is very neat and 
tidy — just a small, decorative ink stain on his cuff. He is walking 
the 129 hectares these days with a bit of preemptory nostalgia, as he 
leaves for the natural history Field Museum in Chicago in the autumn. 
"I don't think once you've been here, you ever really get rid of the 
infection," he says. "We've planted literally millions of bulbs in my 
time here."

In the lake outside the Palm House, moorhens and huge white-headed 
geese float about. In the spring, carpets of bluebells, daffodils and 
crocuses are around every turn. In the corner of the garden are the 
research labs, a recent paper from which reported that two species of 
palm tree had diverged despite sharing the same habitat (V. Savolainen 
et al. Nature doi:///10.1038/nature04566; 2006). E.M.

Box 2. Missouri Botanical Garden

Founded: 1859. Still operated under the terms of founder Henry Shaw's 

Research budget: US$9.4 million.

Famous for: The Climatron geodesic dome and free concerts on Wednesdays 
in the summer.

Peter Raven is the president of the Missouri Botanical Garden, a 
32-hectare spread in Saint Louis. With an egg-shaped head and an 
engaging smile, he has lived in a corner of the garden — like a vicar 
in his vicarage — since 1971. However his status as, among other 
things, the lead author of the bestselling plant-sciences text for 
undergraduates gives him an influence far beyond the bounds of his 

"Botanical gardens have always been scholarly enterprises," Raven says, 
but the Missouri garden is an aesthetic one, too, managing neatly to be 
attractive even in the harsh winters of the US Midwest. The Japanese 
garden, for example, looks best in the snow, its distinctive lines 
highlighted with white.

On the paths, school kids in khakis are punching each other. Under the 
osage orange trees are nets to keep the large green fruit from "bonking 
people on the head", according to Lisa Brandon, the public-relations 
manager. In this garden, like others, everything is emblazoned with the 
name of some donor or other. Some science research in gardens is funded 
by a similarly direct route, which means no peer-reviewed proposals and 
very little red tape. Just a thank-you note. E.M.

© 2006 Nature Publishing Group

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