In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, we’re having a month-long series focused on our work in Latin America. This week, we’re shining a spotlight on some of our St. Louis-based researchers – people dedicated to unraveling the secrets of Latin American plants and ecosystems.
A Century-Long Quest
The journey of our Latin American research is both deep and extensive, spanning over 100 years. It began as early expeditions in the 1900s, where the primary goal was to seek unique orchids that could be brought to St. Louis to enrich the Garden’s living collections. These initiatives grew, especially from the 1970’s to the 2000’s, and the Garden became a hub for botanical research in Latin America with dozens of staff and projects active across the continent. Now, our mission is evolving once again as we aim to use our expertise and efforts to understand, protect, and restore plants and vital ecosystems.
The St. Louis Research Team
The Garden’s Latin America Department in St. Louis is a reference for botanical research, boasting thirteen members. These include some of the globe’s most recognized plant experts, responsible for discovering countless plant species. We’re especially proud of our four Latin American researchers: Dr. Carmen Ulloa, Dr. Rosa Ortiz, Dr. Mónica Carlsen and Dr. Sebastián Tello. They’re not just staff; they’re our bridge to the authentic spirit of Latin American botany.
Zooming in on Our Latin American Researchers
Dr. Carmen Ulloa hails from Ecuador but has been a vital part of the Garden for over three decades. Carmen’s expertise lies in the unique alpine ecosystems atop the Andean mountains known as the Páramos. She’s also deeply involved in studying melastomes – the princes flower plant family, which is widespread in Latin America. In addition, Carmen is leading an ambitious project, the Flora Mesoamericana, which aims to document plant species from Southern Mexico through Central America to Panama.
Dr. Rosa Ortiz, originally from Peru, joined the Garden in 1993. Rosa is a specialist in tropical plants, specifically the moonseed family. These plants are not only diverse in Latin America but also have fascinating uses, such as turning them into poison for hunting darts by indigenous groups. Besides, Rosa is passionate about delving deep into the plant biodiversity of areas like Colombia and Peru.
Dr. Mónica Carlsen is our go-to person on Aroids, a vast and varied plant family. Originally from Venezuela, Mónica pursued her doctoral studies at the University of Missouri in St. Louis. She later returned to the Garden to further research and also to spearhead educational initiatives. Besides her research, a significant part of Mónica’s mission is mentoring. Every year, she guides a batch of students through intensive summer research programs, ensuring that the next generation of plant scientists gets the best training right here in St. Louis.
Dr. Juan Carlos Penagos, from Colombia, focuses on studying the diversity and evolution of the avocado plant family across forests in Latin America. As a postdoc at the Center for Conservation and Sustainable Development, he collaborates closely with our Latin America team. His work includes identifying new species and using DNA data to reconstruct the evolutionary relationships among species. Juan Carlos is also interested in natural hybridization – that is when two different species manage to reproduce with one another. This is a phenomenon that is very poorly understood, but that might hide important insights into why there are so many species in some groups of plants, particularly in tropical regions.
Dr. Sebastián Tello, currently at the helm of the Latin America Department, has been with the Garden for a decade. An ecologist from Ecuador, Sebastián’s work has recently centered in Bolivia, especially through the noteworthy Madidi Project to explore the plant diversity in the Bolivian Andes. Yet, his research interests span across the Andean region, delving into forest functions and their response to environmental shifts. In his leadership role, Sebastián is determined to highlight the fundamental research and legacy of the Garden’s work on Latin America and to align its expertise and research with the goals of conserving and restoring nature for the benefit of biodiversity and people.
Many other staff from different corners of the Garden work in Latin America and contribute to the garden’s mission in the region. The connection between the Garden and botanical research and conservation in Latin America runs deep, has an illustrious past and a bright future.
Our St. Louis team embodies passion, dedication, and expertise. Their contributions are a testament to our unwavering commitment to Latin American botany. As Hispanic Heritage Month continues, let’s celebrate the people who make our mission come alive.