Nation's plant database falling behind, survey shows

EAST LANSING, Mich. Stopping to smell the roses may be laudable, but more people need to be picking, preserving and cataloging them.

Smelling doesn't build and maintain a rich and necessary documentation of the nation's biodiversity. A drop-off in collecting plants threatens the flora database that is the primary source of material for gardeners, county extension agents, nature enthusiasts, artists and illustrators as well as for medical scientists, forensics experts, law enforcement agencies and other scientists.

The problem: Collecting local or in-state plant life is in steep decline, at a time when habitat is changing dramatically.

"To protect the best remaining native forests, and to determine how development can best reflect our values, we have to thoroughly understand our natural heritage" said Alan Prather, a botanist and plant curator at Michigan State University. "This information has to be kept current, because new invasive species are introduced every year and once-pristine habitats are destroyed by both natural and human forces."

Prather and Carolyn Ferguson of Kansas State University have outlined the trend toward doing less collecting which holds true from the vast holdings of the Field Museum in Chicago to smaller plant museums that house only a few thousand specimens.

Their article, "The Decline of Plant Collecting in the United States: A Threat to the Infrastructure of Biodiversity Studies," and the accompanying "Commentary: Implications of the Decline in Plant Collecting for Systematic and Floristic Research" appear in the spring 2004 issue of Systematic Botany.

The researchers surveyed small and large collections of plants or herbaria, from public and private institutions, universities, museums and botanical gardens, and from 30 states and the District of Columbia.

Their findings are startling: Fewer scientists and

Contact: Alan Prather
Michigan State University

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