Each year, the Missouri Botanical Garden’s Science and Conservation staff discover and name about 200 plant species new to science. That’s about 10 percent of all plant species discovered by scientists worldwide annually.
Discovery is the first crucial step in plant conservation. Until a species is described, we cannot think about conservation status or ensure its survival. Once described, species need to be organized into meaningful classification systems. DNA sequence data and computer algorithms reconstruct evolutionary histories and depict them as phylogenetic trees. These classifications provide meaningful ways to talk about plants and plant diversity and are a basic need for other types of plant science.
We’re still counting the number of new species discovered by the Garden this year, but here are a few highlights.
For the most part, plant species new to science are found in tropical areas. But novelties can still be discovered in the United States in areas underexplored and in groups of plants understudied by botanists.
For instance, this new species of Trillium was discovered in Georgia by Garden botanist Aaron Floden and colleagues. Species of Trillium can be difficult to recognize strictly based on their appearances, so genetic markers were used to study this new species and distinguish it from its relatives. While the plants are short and fragile or delicate, the flowers of Trillium delicatum smell strongly of dung.
This rare species is currently known from only four populations in Georgia, one of which was almost entirely wiped out by wild hogs. Recent efforts by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources to protect the plants from hogs at two of its locations have been successful.
The Garden is known worldwide for its efforts to document the plants found in species-rich, tropical Central and South America. Documenting what plants grow where is the first step towards conservation. It also helps us to understand the role each species plays in their natural environments.
The final volume of an eight-volume set describing all the plant species known from Costa Rica is nearing completion and is expected to be published by the Garden in 2020.
This beautiful Costa Rican member of the shrimp plant family Anisacanthus grace-woodiae was named for Grace Wood, an amateur botanist who first collected it and brought it to the attention of Garden botanist Barry Hammel. Hammel recognized and published it as a species new to science. It will be included in the final volume of the Manual de Plantas de Costa Rica.
In his more than 50 year career at the Garden, Tom Croat has collected more than 107,000 aroid specimens and described and named more than 1,400 new aroid species. He’s discovered more new taxa than any other aroid researcher alive. In honor of Croat’s 80th birthday and 50 years of working at the Garden, 2018 was declared the “Year of the Aroids.” In 2019, two issues of the Garden’s scientific journals were devoted to research on the aroid family.
Syngonium litense is one of the 26 new species of aroids described as new to science by Croat in 2019. It is named for the Lita region of Ecuador where he first collected it.
Garden botanist Charlotte Taylor has described and named 448 species of plants as new to science. That places her in the top 10 most prolific woman plant taxonomists of all time and the second most prolific living female plant taxonomist. Taxonomy is the critical first step towards understanding and communicating information about biological organisms.
Most of Taylor’s new species are in the coffee or quinine family. Schradera condorica is one of the 22 new species she published in this plant family in 2019. It grows only on the highly endemic sandstone substrates of the Cordillera del Cóndor region of Ecuador for which it is named.
The fruits of this new species are packed in a honeycomb-like arrangement.
Among Garden botanist Li-Bing Zhang’s many botanical pursuits is a passion for ferns that grow in caves, seemingly inhospitable places for plants that need light to thrive.
In 2017 he participated in an expedition to China during which 90 limestone caves were visited and 270 collections of ferns were made. In 2019, nine of the collections were published as new species in the genus Polystichum.
Polystichum yifanii was named in honor of one of the participants in the expedition, Yi-Fan Duan. It is thought to exist only in the one cave where it was discovered and is threatened with extinction due to nearby road expansion. It has an International Union for Conservation of Nature ranking of “critically endangered.”
In addition to editing and publishing their own accounts of all the species that are found in particular areas, Garden botanists participate in projects initiated by sister institutions.
In 2019, Garden botanist Ehoarn Bidault named and described eight new species in the spiderwort family as a precursor to a volume of Flore du Gabon, to be produced by Naturalis Biodiversity Center at Leiden and the Botanic Garden Meise.
Flowers of Palisota alboanthera have the unusual combination of two small upper yellow anthers and one large lower white anther, for which it is named.
Following the International Union for Conservation of Nature, this species is ranked as “vulnerable.” It is threatened by a combination of forestry, mining, and the development of a hydroelectric project.
Inventory baseline and impact studies for proposed iron-ore mines in the mountains of Guinea led to the discovery of a new species of Coleus.
Garden botanists Pete Phillipson and Ehoarn Bidault participated in these studies. The appropriately named Coleus ferricola (iron-dwelling Coleus) was published as new to science by Pete Phillipson in 2019.
The earliest collections of this species date back to 1930, but they had been misinterpreted as members of a variable widespread species. Comparison of collections made during the inventory process with the older herbarium collections enabled recognition of this new species.
Following the International Union for Conservation of Nature this species is ranked as “vulnerable.” Its main threat is from habitat destruction caused by road construction associated with the ongoing exploration phase of mining projects.
In 2019, the Garden and Saint Louis Zoo were honored with the Whitney R. Harris World Ecology Award in recognition of their conservation programs in Madagascar. The Garden and Zoo work to save Madagascar’s ecosystems and incredible diversity today and into the future by training scientists and building organizational capacity in Madagascar. The Garden has had a sustained research presence in Madagascar since the 1970s.
Many new plant species have been discovered during the Garden’s tenure in Madagascar. Claoxylon ambrense is one of the new species from Madagascar published in 2019. The type, or defining specimen, of this new species was collected by a team of Garden botanist led by George Schatz from the Parc National Montagne D’Ambre (for which it is named) and described as new by Garden botanist Gordon McPherson.
In 2019, Garden botanists Pete Lowry, Chris Birkinshaw, George Schatz and Patrice Antilahimena named a new species Melanophylla dianeae after Diane Wyse Jackson, wife of Garden President Peter Wyse Jackson.
Diane has visited Madagascar twice since coming to the Garden, traveling to the area where this species is endemic on both occasions. She works tirelessly for the Science and Conservation Division at the Garden and in particular its work in Madagascar.
Melanophylla dianeae is known from just five adult trees from an area that has been heavily impacted by forest clearing for slash-and-burn agriculture. Following the International Union for Conservation of Nature this species is ranked as “critically endangered.” Efforts to grow the plants from seed have failed and attempts are now being made to propagate M. dianeae by air-layering.
Astrotrichilia leroyana was a plant in desperate need for a name. In 2011, material of this then nameless new species from Madagascar was found to possess secondary compounds with antiproliferative properties towards ovarian cancer cells. It was part of a group of plants being studied by Jean-François Leroy at the time of his passing in 1999 and, finally in 2019, published as new and named in honor of Dr. Leroy by Garden botanist Pete Phillipson.
Public Information Officer
Information and images of new plant species discovered by Garden scientists was compiled by Herbarium Assistant Lauren Boyle and Curatorial Assistant Amy Pool.