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Botanical Garden hosts international conference to guide plant conservation efforts

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 8, 2011 - The Earth has more than 300,000 known plant species. With such variety, it's possible to believe that plant conservation is not a priority. But for Porter P. Lowry II, and fellow plant conservation scientists, every one of those different species of plants is crucial for life on Earth.

"Plants are important to people. We currently use a small number of plants for most of our needs, but the potential among all of the rest of the plants on Earth is there. Every species that we lose reduces the potential value of Earth's plants that we can use," Lowry said. "Plants provide the framework for all of life on Earth."

Lowry, the curator and head of the African and Madagascar department for the Missouri Botanical Garden, was just one of the dozens of scientists to present this week, July 5 through 7, at the 2011 Global Strategy for Plant Conservation conference at the Missouri Botanical Garden. This international conference set out to advance plant conservation efforts by bringing together scientists, policy makers and practitioners from all over the world to share knowledge and research, and to influence conservation priorities.

Valerie Pence, director of plant research at the Center for Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden, discussed research on plant propagation and cryopreservation. Her research on plants that produce few or no seeds highlights the importance of worldwide knowledge of what species are endangered.

One of the major challenges Pence mentioned is the loss of plant biodiversity. Over 180 countries supported the Global Strategy at the Convention on Biological Diversity, first introduced in April 2002. These countries recognized that up to two-thirds of the world's plant species are at risk by the end of the century unless steps are taken to protect tens of thousands of plant species.

The Missouri Botanical Garden has scientists working on six continents in 35 countries around the globe to research and promote plant biodiversity and conservation efforts.

Lowry works in Madagascar, a place he describes as a biodiversity hot spot, to document and protect plant species. The program in Madagascar for plant conservation efforts through the Missouri Botanical Garden is nearly 40 years old. It once was believed that 8,400 different plant species existed on the island. Lowry and his colleagues have now bumped that number to between 13,000 and 14,000 different plant species.

"It is not just enough to conserve a tree or a few trees or an individual species," Lowry said. "We don't just focus on individual species. We focus on the genetic diversity represented in each of those species."

Lowry stresses that educational programs are crucial for further conservation efforts in Madagascar. The Missouri Botanical Garden has participated in programming that focuses on stewardship and community development with rare plants species. The goal is to build a long-term strategy for the people of Madagascar to co-exist with the plants in their environment.

"You have to look for a mutually beneficial balance of maintaining natural resources and helping people in local communities find alternatives and sustainable ways to live," Lowry said. "When you find this win-win situation, that is the model that is essential to make plant conservation possible in very poor, biodiverse countries like Madagascar."

Pence and Lowry both stressed the importance of data sharing and the preservation of tissue in a multitude of environments. Sharing genetic samples across the globe also provides more research opportunities as these samples may have medical benefits that have yet to be discovered.

"Plant conservation as a whole has its challenges. But you have this incredible group of people with talent who are dedicated to making a difference and there has been a lot of progress made in this field," Pence said.

Jonathan Ernst, a student at Saint Louis University, is a summer intern at the Beacon.