After looking at it closely, horticulturists Jared Chauncey and Dave Gunn have determined that the plant in front of them is, in fact, Quercus arkansana. They collect several different plant parts—branches, leaves, and acorns. A few of them will be pressed, dried, and mounted to create two herbarium vouchers—one for the National Arboretum and one for the Garden’s Herbarium. The rest will be brought to the Garden to be studied, propagated, added to the living collections database, and potentially cultivated on grounds.The items all come with valuable data attached to them, and all that data originated from one thing—a name.
What’s in a Name?
The Arkansas oak (Quercus arkansana) is one of the target species on a collecting expedition. The Garden team is in the southeastern United States with horticulturist Kyle Cheesborough of St. Louis’s Bellefontaine Cemetery and Patrick Thompson of Davis Arboretum–Auburn University on a collecting expedition funded by the Tree Gene Conservation Partnership. Their goal is to survey and collect plant material of woody plants in need of conservation that cannot be safeguarded in seed banks and therefore must be housed in botanical gardens for display and research.
Identifying the right species, however, is not easy. Despite the fact that it grows up to 45 feet tall, this Arkansas oak is often overlooked or mistaken for other common oak species. Today, it is in danger of extinction because of logging, land development, and climate change. It is listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List.
In their quest to find this species, the team relies on data. Without basic information such as the scientific name, other research—from conservation genetics to ecological restoration—can’t be done. The species can’t be propagated and cultivated if horticulturists don’t know what it is, where it grows naturally, and what environmental conditions it needs to thrive. “All botanical research is dependent upon the correct and consistent application of scientific plant names,” says Garden Curatorial Assistant Amy Pool. “They form our vocabulary; we can’t talk about what we do without them.”
Names, Baskets, and Everything in Between
With more than 150 years of history exploring and documenting the plant world, it is no surprise that the Garden is home to a great amount of information about plants. The Garden’s living collections encompass more than 48,000 specimens. The Peter H. Raven Library is considered one of the most comprehensive libraries of botanical literature in the world, and includes a rare book collection with items such as the first edition, first printing of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.
The Herbarium houses nearly 7 million dried plant specimens, with over half a million bryophytes. It is one of the largest herbaria in the world, and continues to grow each year. New plant vouchers are constantly added, such as the ones Chauncey and Gunn are bringing back from expeditions.
The Garden is also home to hundreds of artifacts made of plants or used to study plants; this is the Garden’s global biocultural collection. The items represent the interchange between plants and people.
While these resources are available to local and visiting researchers, scientists know that free global access to information is crucial to the study and protection of Earth’s species. Where can all this information live and be accessible? Tropicos®, a plant database.
A Plant Database for Everything and For All
Tropicos is a database that Senior Curators Dr. Marshall Crosby and Dr. Bob Magill started in the early 1970s. “Originally, we were trying to track names of mosses,” says Dr. Magill. “There are 1.5 million or more plant names, and to keep track of them—what’s related to what, what grows where, and the information about their morphology or ecology—it’s a tremendous amount of data that needs a computer to manipulate it.”
Approximately three times more plant names are in publication than the total number of known plant species. Before Tropicos existed, all that information was scattered on herbarium specimens or in publications in the library. Scientists had to physically pull each specimen or publication to determine what information was available. Developing Tropicos meant a computer was doing all that work and much more.
The database quickly became a valuable resource where names could be attached to other kinds of data—herbarium specimens, economic botany artifacts, literature —providing value-added information. “It’s a connection almost like a spiderweb, with names at the very center,” says Dr. Magill. “That architecture really provided an avenue for everything else to grow.”
Tropicos can be used in many ways. The database enables researchers to prepare, edit, and use floristic or taxonomic works such as Catalogue of the Plants of Madagascar or the Central American Mosses. It’s also used to manage physical collections, like the biocultural collections. And it can be used to describe and understand the geographic distribution of species using herbarium records and geographic information systems (GIS).
“These data represent the main source of primary, verifiable information on the distribution of organisms and, therefore, on spatial diversity patterns,” says Dr. Ivan Jimenez, Associate Scientist at the Garden’s Center for Conservation and Sustainable Development. “In turn, understanding spatial diversity patterns is one of the major goals of ecology, evolutionary biology, and biogeography.”
Today, Tropicos is the world’s largest botanical database, and the site receives more than 175,000 requests daily for authoritative botanical information. It also provides information that increases the value of other global projects, like the World Flora Online. “It’s important to collect the information that people are gathering about plants and for it to be preserved and made easily accessible,” says Dr. Magill. “We need to continue to collect data so that as new things are developed, such as the World Flora Online, we’ll have that information available to promote those new systems.”
From the Field to Your Garden
Data may not seem like a plant’s most obvious feature when you visit the Garden or pick one up at your local nursery. But all kinds of information are intrinsically attached to a plant from the moment it is discovered. Its physical and genetic characteristics set it apart from the other millions of species, warranting its own name. Its natural habitat and the specific environmental conditions under which it thrives inform horticulturists and home gardeners alike how to best cultivate it. And that’s just some of the basics.
As a scientific institution, the Garden keeps track of every plant within its walls. These living collections are carefully acquired, tracked, and curated through a separate database, the Living Collections Management System (LCMS). This innovative tool, one of the most technologically advanced systems of its kind, is fully integrated with GIS software and allows the Garden’s Plant Records team to store, analyze, and share data about every plant that enters the Garden with other departments, other institutions, and Garden visitors. The database records whether a plant was purchased, donated, or collected in the wild. If it was wild-collected, the database notes the latitude, longitude, altitude, its location in the Garden, and so on.
Provenance (or origin) data tells a story and helps scientists and horticulturists draw conclusions about plant distribution, population biology, taxonomy, propagation, and cultivation. The LCMS also populates the Garden’s home gardening tool, PlantFinder, one of the top online resources for gardeners locally and around the country. You can search PlantFinder by common or scientific names and get details such as native range; hardiness zone; how high and wide a plant grows; bloom time; sun, water, and soil requirements; noteworthy characteristics; common pests or problems; and more.
The LCMS is also tied to Tropicos, and this can play an important role in conservation efforts. “The first step in plant conservation is to understand the high level of data associated with species,” says Andrew Wyatt, Senior Vice President of Horticulture and Living Collections. Anyone interested in the scientific background of a plant they see in the Garden can go even deeper than what the LCMS offers to explore the history of that species. All you need is a name to unlock the troves of data behind it.
Just the Beginning
With horticulturists Chauncey and Gunn back from their expedition, the journey of the Arkansas oak has just started. The data they have recorded—exact coordinates, the populations from which it was collected, the number of individuals that were sampled, and more—will be added to the different Garden databases and shared with the world. That data could be useful to a gardener wanting to plant oaks at home or a fifth grader writing a paper on interesting trees. That data will also help horticulturists and researchers understand this species and, ideally, protect Quercus arkansana from extinction.
Content Managing Editor
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2017 Missouri Botanical Garden Bulletin.