Botanical gardens hold documented collections of living plants for the purposes of scientific research, conservation, display, and education. Serving as a botanical ark will always be at the core of institutions like the Missouri Botanical Garden. However, new times call for new measures.
Plant species are going extinct at unprecedented rates today, and botanical gardens’ conservation role has become increasingly important. With its strong arsenal of scientific and technological tools, and an unparalleled level of expertise on plants, the Garden today is poised to lead global plant conservation efforts. It is redefining what it means to be a botanical garden—a new, modern ark.
What Sets the Garden Apart
Few botanical gardens possess all the necessary pieces to complete the plant conservation puzzle on a global scale. Building on its strong foundation of discovering and classifying plants, the Garden has grown its ecological restoration, seed banking, and conservation genetics programs in recent years. The horticulture program has also shifted its focus to better support conservation, and the education and outreach staff work tirelessly to connect the larger community and visitors to the Garden’s work. “We each carry a piece of the puzzle,” says Andrew Wyatt, Senior Vice President of Horticulture and Living Collections.
Horticulture is playing an increasingly important role in building the new ark. After all, what’s a botanical garden without its living collection—its plants? Next time you visit the Garden, take a closer look at the plants on display. From plant sourcing and record-keeping to propagation to cultivation, their journey illustrates how horticulture can step in and change the tide of extinction. “I think we’re one of the most innovative botanical gardens in combining our horticulture with plant documentation and using that data to make decisions,” Wyatt says. “It’s a very exciting direction for us to go in.”
Determining which specimens make it into the ark is no small task, especially when so many are either rare or endangered, and the clock is ticking. The foundation of plant conservation is taxonomy (the science of identifying and classifying specimens). But for effective conservation to happen, record-keeping sits firmly on top of that foundation. The Garden aims to target and acquire plant species that have detailed records, such as the collection coordinates, the number of individuals that have been sampled, and the environmental conditions under which they live in the wild. This helps with learning how to grow a plant and obtaining diverse genetic representation. “The records are as important as the plants themselves and serve as a framework for their preservation,” says Rebecca Sucher, Manager of Living Collections and
Plant Records. The goal is to replicate the natural environment during propagation to conserve the plants on Garden grounds or, ideally, reintroduce them to their native habitat in the future.
In the Garden’s nurseries, horticulturists are responsible for the propagation of seeds and cuttings that have been collected in the wild around the world. Bringing these plants to life also comes with the responsibility to record and document successes and failures of trials. This information helps horticulturists improve propagation techniques and can support conservation efforts within the Garden and around the world. “I can’t do my job well without the help of Plant Records ordering and documenting incoming seed,” says plant propagator Justin Lee. “Nor would my plants have a home and a chance at survival without our talented horticulturists out on the grounds.”
Caring for Plants
An ark’s effectiveness depends on its ability to safeguard its contents in the long term. Similarly, a botanical garden’s conservation efforts are only as good as its knowledge and success of plant species cultivation. Once rare or endangered species have been added to the collection and propagated in the nurseries, it is the horticulturists’ task to ensure they survive. As plants are cultivated on Garden grounds, horticulturists gain knowledge to support species level cultivation. “Many of these plants have never been grown here before, so I trial the plants in different locations to discover where they can thrive,” says horticulturist Mariel Tribby. Record-keeping is also important during this step; making note of any special cultivation techniques used and attributes of the plants help guide conservation work.
Andrea Androuais, Managing Content Editor