Botanic Gardens Conservation International
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Editorial

Volume 4 Number 1 - January 2007

Sara Oldfield

The diversity of plant species is a fascination to all botanists, an inspiration to gardeners and, although generally taken for granted, provides the basis for all life on earth. Species diversity represents millions of years of evolution and is the most important visible expression of biodiversity, giving character to ecosystems and shape to genetic diversity. Understanding and recording plant diversity depends on naming species. In this issue of BGjournal we mark the 300th anniversary of Linnaeus, the founder of modern species nomenclature and variously described as “the Prince of Flowers” or “the Father of Botany”.

Botanic gardens have an extremely important role to play in studying, naming, cataloguing and displaying plant diversity. All these roles are clearly important as a basis for plant conservation. As pointed out by Tim Entwisle in this issue, having a focused collections policy is a basic requirement for each botanic garden to manage its plant resources to maximum effect. Managing information on plants in the collections is also an important requirement recognized by botanic gardens around the world. Collection policies and management of collections depend on taxonomy and plant nomenclature, the often invisible sciences that determine the nature of botanic gardens.

In the wider scheme of things, plant species are being lost both literally with the increasing pace of extinctions and within the conservation debate. The ecosystem approach dominates discussion of biodiversity conservation whereas mammals and birds are used as indicators of biodiversity status and health. The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) Global Strategy for Plant Conservation (GSPC) was developed to address both the relative invisibility of plants in international conservation fora and, more critically, the actual loss of plant species.

The GSPC is currently the subject of an in-depth review and the progress towards meeting its ambitious targets will be highlighted within CBD over the next two years. The contribution that botanic gardens are making to the GSPC is remarkable, individually and collectively through BGCI and the Global Partnership for Plant Conservation. Target 1 of the GSPC, as highlighted by Vernon Heywood, Karen Wilson and Frank Bisby in this issue, calls for A widely accessible working list of known plant species, as a step towards a complete world flora. There is a good likelihood of this target being met and this achievement in itself will validate the importance of the GSPC. Linnaeus described and catalogued around 9,000 plant species, laying the basis for a global working list of known plant species. He believed that this represented roughly half the world’s flora. Now we know that closer to 300,000 vascular plant species exist.

Target 2 of the GSPC depends on the classification and naming of plants. It calls for A preliminary assessment of the conservation status of all known plant species, at national, regional and international levels. At present, progress towards meeting Target 2 is slow at an international level, not because of the lack of data but because of lack of organization of the information on conservation status. This is an issue of concern, resulting in the invisibility of plants in global species assessments and conservation planning. Botanic gardens, however, are playing a major role in assessing the conservation status of plant species and recording this information, for example in the TROPICOS database maintained by Missouri Botanical Garden and the taxonomic publications produced by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Targets 1 and 2 underpin the other 16 targets of the GSPC and are fundamentally important for botanic gardens to do their work. BGCI is taking a lead role in facilitating Targets and 14 of the GSPC, reflecting the key responsibilities of botanic gardens in ex situ plant conservation and education. Target 8 calls for 60 per cent of threatened plant species in accessible ex situ collections, preferably in the country of origin, and 10 per cent of them included in recovery and restoration programmes. A major tool for monitoring Target 8 at a global level is the BGCI PlantSearch database. The development of this online database represents an ambitious attempt to record the diversity of plant species in cultivation in botanic gardens and link this to conservation data. At present there are over 150,000 taxa recorded in PlantSearch provided by 637 gardens, of which over 11,000 species are recorded as globally threatened.

Managing the PlantSearch database is a major challenge for BGCI and I would like to begin a dialogue about the priorities for developing the database as a conservation planning tool for all botanic gardens. A few years ago, Dr James Cullen reviewed the data maintained by BGCI, organized the plant names according to Dick Brummitt’s Vascular Plants: Families and Genera of 1992 and eliminated misspellings, synonyms and misplaced names. Currently BGCI screens all plant names in PlantSearch against the International Plant Names Index (IPNI) (www.ipni.org) as a means of eliminating invalidly published names. Looking ahead, do we need to promote a standard naming system for gardens, to allow for easy collaboration both nationally and internationally? Is there any value in recording cultivars in the database? How do we give due prominence to plants of particular value, such as medicinal species and crop wild relatives? How do we address the lack of currently compiled information on globally threatened plants within the IUCN Red List? Do we need to continue the policy of not revealing the location of plant species in collections? Your views on the utility of PlantSearch and its future development will be extremely valuable.

There will be good opportunities to discuss the links between plant taxonomy, nomenclature, conservation evaluations and conservation actions at the 3rd Global Botanic Gardens Congress in Wuhan in April this year. During the Congress we will be celebrating 20 years of BGCI. Various other BGCI anniversary events are planned throughout the year, starting with a public lecture by Wangari Maatthai, the Nobel Prize winner, in London on 8 February. Another event, organised jointly by BGCI, IUCN and ArtDatabanken will take place in Uppsala in Sweden – an international meeting on 3 May entitled Secrets of Species. This links to the Linnaean Tercentenary celebrations in Sweden and will be used to promote the fundamental importance of plant conservation. Throughout 2007 there will of course be events around the world to celebrate the 300th anniversary of Linnaeus. A summary of these is given on page 31. One of the best memorials to Linnaeus is the commitment of botanic gardens to classifying, naming and conserving plants, so that none of the plant species known to Linnaeus or subsequently described are needlessly lost.

Sara Oldfield