The iconic Enid A. Haupt Conservatory at The New York Botanical Garden. Credit: ©Robert Benson Photography.
For more than 400 years, humans have been collecting bits of leaf and twig, pressing them flat and dry for safe-keeping and writing about them in journals and books, all to better understand the world’s plants and, more recently, to protect them.
Our knowledge has become exponentially more sophisticated over those years, but the information we’ve accumulated remains scattered all over the world and is often difficult to access. As biologists race to protect biodiversity, there’s an effort underway to change that, a global partnership to build World Flora Online — the first online catalog of the estimated 400,000 vascular plant species of the world.
Once established, World Flora Online would act like a central nervous system — linking up a broader drive to digitize the world’s knowledge of plants — to convert archives of print volumes and millions of dried plant bits into a collection of navigable data. The vision, especially if it’s built out and linked with rich information, is one intuitive, clickable hub that can serve biologists studying the Amazon, land managers defending against invasive species and even native plant gardeners. Such a tool could be a breakthrough for conservation.
“Everything else depends on knowing what we have,” says Andrew Wyatt, vice president of horticulture at Missouri Botanical Garden. “If we don’t know what we have, how on earth can we actually plan to conserve the species or the habitats, or move forward in any way, shape or form?”
In 2012, the Missouri Botanical Garden, the New York Botanical Garden (NYBG), the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh launched the effort to create an online flora of all known plants by 2020, one step in a global partnership to halt the loss of plant biodiversity. There are now more than 30 partners around the world on board, each sifting through their collective resources and figuring out how to link them all up.
“Information about plant species is hard to get at,” says Wayt Thomas, curator of botany at NYBG, and their lead scientist working on the partnership. “A lot of it is not available online; it’s only available hard copy. And, even if it is available online, it may be distributed, scattered all over the Internet, and some of it is reliable while others less so.”
Thomas, and the team at NYBG, have been among the leaders turning stores of plant information into a more accessible digital form. It’s a daunting task, and to get a sense of the scope of information they’re dealing with, it helps to look at the raw data that forms the foundation of these efforts — preserved plant specimens. The millions of specimens, tiny dried bits of shrub, tree, cactus, etc., collected over the years are the bits of data that form the basis of plant biodiversity research.
At NYBG, for example, tucked away in manila folders, stacked in four floors of climate-controlled cabinets, are 7.8 million dried specimens, forming the second-largest such collection, or herbarium, in the world. Each specimen represents a snapshot, one plant found in one place and time. NYBG’s herbarium has dried plants collected during the explorations of Charles Darwin and Captain James Cook.