Nation's plant database falling behind, survey shows

students are going into the field to gather plants and preserve them in collections. The result, Prather said, is not only a breakdown of resources for a myriad of professionals, but also a breakdown of knowledge of what habitats were like and what they are becoming.

It's vital to understand the composition of a natural habitat and to be able to quickly recognize the invasion of exotic species.

"If we cannot keep out such invading species, then our best defense is to detect them right away and eliminate them," Ferguson said. "But unless we are vigilant and collect plants locally and know when invaders appear, we cannot possibly defend against them."

Plant collections play an active role in medical and public health and forensic science, Prather said. For example, if a child eats an unknown plant, workers in herbarium collections get the emergency call to quickly identify the plant.

"We need actual specimens to identify plants and, in a situation like this, to rule out poisonous possibilities," Prather said.

In terms of national security, herbarium collections are assuming added meaning, the authors said. Without extensive plant reference specimens, identifying foreign plant diseases or pathogens of crops or forests would take much longer, Prather said, and meanwhile, serious damage could result.

Ferguson and Prather advocate increasing the resources for local collecting and for accessioning specimens.

"We need more people to do the actual collecting. We need to train students in collecting practices," Prather said. "We need to focus on statewide plant collecting again and actively resist pressures to stop adding locally collected plant specimens to the nation's herbaria."


Contact: Alan Prather
Michigan State University

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