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Meeting of botanical minds

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 11, 2009 - "We are saving plants to save ourselves" said Peter Raven. "In an age of global climate change, habitat destruction, population growth, increasing desire for consumption, and rotten technologies throughout the world, institutions like ours have a special responsibility."

"At no other point in history have plants been so important," agreed Stephen D. Hopper, director of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew. In a speech at Missouri Botanical Gardens, he equated the movement toward conservation and sustainability with major social transitions such as the abolition of slavery and women's suffrage. Botanical gardens will play a major role in shaping the future, he believes.

As the Garden celebrates its 150th birthday, and Kew marks its 250th, it is only fitting that each participates in the other's festivities. Hopper was in St. Louis recently, and Raven will participate in a conference on conservation of plants in London in October. Kew and MoBot have cooperated in several endeavors over the past 30 years. Together with Conservation International, they have just published a map-based Atlas of the Vegetation of Madagascar. It is also the first road atlas of the island, and as such has sold more copies than anticipated. Next year they are poised to publish a database of all known world plant species, the first since Linnaeus' in the 1700s.

Major birthdays are a time to look backward as well as forward. Both Raven and Hopper agree that the 1960s represented a turning point in botany. As the DNA code became known, scientists were able to apply it to understanding the relationships between organisms. And the '60s began to frame conservation as a worldwide - rather than local - concern. The 1972 U.N. conference on the environment in Stockholm formalized a commitment to conservation and improving the environment. A new era of worldwide cooperation began at that time.

Describing the World's Flora

To conserve, you need to know what you have. Hopper describes an "increasing realization about how much more there is to discover about plants."

Botanists are still discovering about 2,000 new plant species a year. Kew and MoBot are each responsible for about 200 of those. (Hopper alone has described about 300 new species during his career.) Two thousand new species of orchids have been discovered in just the past 10 years. Orchids, the biggest plant family, now have about 30,000 known species.

And of the plants described, only about 20 percent are known in depth, Raven points out. There is still much to learn about how plants fit together into communities and ecosystems. A forest fixes carbon dioxide, lessens the greenhouse effect, moderates the flow of water and influences the local climate.

"Botanic gardens are mostly about plant diversity," Hopper says. Preserving this diversity is a major function.

A classic case is edible plants. Of the approximately 30,000 species of edible plants, 90 percent of the world's food is from slightly more than 100 species. Three crops - wheat, rice and corn - make up 60 percent of that food. Yet, as the climate changes, food producers will need new varieties of the staples, and some now-minor crops will play a more significant role. Quinoa, a grain from Peru, has lately been added to supermarket shelves, and breadfruit may soon be common on the world's tables.

Kew's Millennial Seed Bank project will mark completion of its first goal at the October anniversary celebration. It will have banked seeds from 10 percent of the world's plants, many from arid and semi-arid areas. And many of them are from edible plants.

Restoration Ecology Projects

Botanical gardens are putting their knowledge to work in a new scientific discipline they call Restoration Ecology. They identify places where they feel the best form of land use is to re-establish the vegetation or "carbon sinks." But Hopper points out that to do that, you need good science.

"You can't just say, here's the seed, and here's the land. Where I come from (southwestern Australia), you do that and nothing happens. You have to understand the germination biology, manage for invasive weeds, control animals, know everything about the biology of the plants. That's what gardens do - we specialize in growing plants."

One major restoration project is taking place in Madagascar. In 1989, a company that wanted to mine ilmenite (titanium dioxide, the compound that makes most white paints white), asked Pete Lowry of the Missouri Botanical Garden to do an environmental impact study of the area, located in littoral forests. These forests grow on white sand near the seacoast and are populated with unique plant species.

As a result of the study, the company decided to set aside large areas of untouched forest and to restore the hundreds of acres of mined areas back to forest. Garden personnel advise in the restoration process; Kew has been particularly helpful because of its expertise in getting seeds to germinate.

Botanical gardens are playing a growing role in teaching sustainability. For example, Kew's "Africulture" project in an area of South Africa heavily affected by HIV-Aids has been working with native healers to maintain the supply of medicinal plants the population relies on.

When the project began, 95 percent of the medicinal plants had been irreversibly harvested. A demonstration plot of land has shown the healers that these plants can be propagated and will maintain their efficacy; a small nursery has been opened to replenish the population.

Education and Food for the Soul

Peter Raven calls research, projects and publishing "the unseen Garden." Most visitors know MoBot as an extraordinary garden. Visitors see spectacular displays that change with the season, as well as distinctive art and architecture. A great number of new display areas have been added under Raven's directorship. The most recent are the celebratory floral clock, and the new Turkish garden south of the Linnaean greenhouse.

Botanical gardens are places of beauty and serenity. That function is particularly important today, says Hopper, since last year Earth reached the point at which more people live in cities of a million or more than live in rural areas. "Urban populations are devoid of the pleasures of green spaces. You can visibly see shoulders relax as people walk through the gardens."

"It is important for us to learn to connect with people," Raven said. The beauty helps in education, in teaching visitors about biodiversity and its conservation. Botanical gardens' mission now and in the future is to promote sustainable living locally and worldwide.

Jo Seltzer is a freelance writer with more than 30 years on the research faculty at the Washington University School of Medicine and seven years teaching tech writing at WU's engineering school.