Science & Conservation

The Missouri Botanical Garden seeks not only to stimulate visitors’ delight in plants, but also, on a profound level, to “preserve and enrich life” by illuminating the importance of plants to the balance of life on Earth. While most visitors discover a heightened appreciation and understanding of the world’s rich botanical heritage, few realize that beyond the floral panoramas and exhibits there exists another realm: our internationally renowned science and conservation program.

The Garden’s plant science program was begun by Dr. George Engelmann, with the direction of Garden founder Henry Shaw. In 1857, Shaw purchased a comprehensive herbarium collection from the estate of German botanist Johann Jakob Bernhardi. This 62,000-specimen collection became the basis for today’s 6.3 million specimen herbarium.

With scientists on six continents in 35 countries around the globe, the Missouri Botanical Garden is one of the three largest plant science programs in the world, along with the New York Botanical Garden and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (outside London). In 1971, there were just three Ph.D. botanists at the Garden. Today, there are nearly 50. With assistance from 75 technical and support personnel, over two dozen graduate students and 70 volunteers, Garden scientists conduct the essential work of plant identification, classification and conservation in remote, rugged locations throughout the world.

Why on Earth?
Plants produce the essentials of life: food, clothing, shelter, medicine and oxygen. Botanists estimate that there are 400,000 species of plants on Earth, but less than one in eight have been evaluated for human use. Meanwhile, in nations where extreme poverty is widespread, humans are destroying tropical forests at a rapid pace, clearing timber and using the land for cattle or subsistence agriculture.

The Garden focuses its work on areas that are rich in biodiversity yet threatened by habitat destruction. Garden scientists collaborate with local institutions, schools, and indigenous peoples to understand plants, create awareness, offer alternatives and craft conservation strategies. We are striving for a world that can sustain us without sacrificing prosperity for future generations, a world where people share a commitment to manage biological diversity for the common benefit.

St. Louis, Research Hub
While the Missouri Botanical Garden conducts science and conservation operations around the world, its headquarters in St. Louis offers tremendous resources as a hub of plant science. The Garden maintains one of the world’s largest herbaria (a library of plant specimens, currently numbering 6.3 million) and one of the world’s best botanical libraries. MBG Press publishes two of the world’s most important botanical journals—Annals and Novon—in addition to dozens of books about plants annually. The Garden also maintains strong ties with St. Louis area universities and sponsors several graduate students each year.

Garden staff members work to share these resources by placing them on the Internet. The Garden has developed and now maintains Tropicos®, the world’s largest online database of botanical information. Thanks to grants from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, W.M. Keck Foundation, Institute of Museum and Library Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Garden is adding entire volumes of rare or inaccessible primary research literature, now over 2.3 million pages, and documented images of plants, flowers and herbarium specimens to its online holdings. Work is ongoing and is considered a tremendous boon to scientists in the developing world, who would not otherwise have access to these rare works and collections.

In each country where the Garden conducts research, staff work with local scientists to strengthen regional botanical institutions and train new botanists. Under contract with several pharmaceutical companies, Garden botanists collect plants that are screened for anti-cancer activity and for pharmaceutical evaluation in programs with other governmental and corporate research groups.

Around the Globe
The Missouri Botanical Garden operates the world’s most active research and training program in tropical botany. Scientific study at the Garden focuses on exploration of the tropics, which encompass Earth’s least known, most diverse, and most rapidly vanishing ecosystems. Because of the speed with which irreversible changes occur in tropical regions, the Garden has made a long-term commitment and assumed a leadership role in the study and conservation of these imperiled habitats.

North America

  • The Garden is the editorial center for the Flora of North America, a catalog of all 21,000 plant species on the continent undertaken collaboratively by 30 U.S. and Canadian institutions.
  • Closer to home, the Flora of Missouri project is jointly sponsored by the Missouri Botanical Garden and the Missouri Department of Conservation. The project’s goal is to produce a revised edition of the Flora of Missouri, first published in 1963 by former Garden curator Julian A. Steyermark. Steyermark’s Flora of Missouri, Second Edition: Volume 2, published in 2006 in cooperation with the Missouri Department of Conservation, is an up-to-date treatment of about two-thirds of the state’s botanical riches. Volume 3 will be published in 2013, completing the project.
  • The Garden collaborates with the University of Missouri to develop standards for accurate identification of medicinal herbs used in dietary supplements.
  • In collaboration with three St. Louis area universities—the University of Missouri-St. Louis, Washington University and Saint Louis University—the Garden conducts a graduate program in botany and ecology.

Mesoamerica
The rugged region from southern Mexico through Panama joins two great continental land masses. The region is of exceptional biological diversity.

  • The first major regional flora ever written in Spanish, Flora Mesoamericana is a collaborative effort of the Missouri Botanical Garden the Instituto de Biología of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), the Natural History Museum, London, and numerous specialists world-wide. In Spanish, the Flora describes, for the first time, all the vascular plants growing in the southeasternmost states of Mexico (including the Yucatán Peninsula) and all the Central American republics. The project publishes its results in this Internet version (http://www.tropicos.org/Project/FM), as well as in printed volumes. The Internet version of Flora Mesoamericana (W3FM) is organized in a species page format. The finished treatments include nomenclature, type data, synonymy, descriptions, and potentially images, identification keys, voucher specimens, maps, and under the Choose Project drop-down menu, taxon-to-taxon links to alternate taxonomic treatments.
  • In Costa Rica, the Garden has a botanist in-country who leads a collaborative project to produce a Spanish-language manual of Costa Rican plants.
  • In Nicaragua, Garden researchers conduct conservation assessments of endangered species utilizing the Flora de Nicaragua, published by the Garden in 2001.The fern volume of the Flora de Nicaragua was published in 2009.

South America
The neotropics of South America have the richest biological diversity in the world, with more than one-third of all known plant species. One-sixth of the world’s plant species occur in just three countries—Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru—an area one-third the size of the U.S.

  • In Colombia, Garden researchers helped complete a checklist of plants from the Antioquia region, which was recently made available on the Web.
  • In Peru—also recognized as a megadiverse country with exceptional species richness—the Garden has worked for more than 30 years. The Garden’s curator-in-residence has worked extensively with local botanists, universities and indigenous people in multi-tiered capacity building programs. New programs, centered in the Palcazu River watershed of Amazonian Peru within the homelands of the indigenous Yanesha people, include sustainable community agriculture and conservation initiatives that create incentives to use forest resources sustainably.
  • In the megadiverse country of Bolivia, the Garden has had a resident curator since 1981. Garden curators lead research and conservation training programs and collaborate with local botanists to compile an inventory of the Madidi National Park in the northern area of the country. With Bolivian colleagues, Garden scientists also inventory other unexplored areas: the montane forests in central Bolivia; the Tucumano-Boliviano montane and Chaqueño forests in southern Bolivia; and the “elbow of the Andes” region of southeastern Bolivia. There, the Garden is helping to develop community-based ecotourism featuring the region’s four vegetation types.
  • Garden scientists, in collaboration with colleagues in Chile, Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay, recently completed a checklist of temperate South America (popularly referred to as the “Southern Cone”), published in 2008. The Garden is currently collaborating and supplying information from Tropicos for a similar checklist of the plants of Brazil.

Africa
With nearly 800,000 specimens from Africa in the herbarium, the Garden is the recognized U.S. center for the study of African botany. Recently, the Garden completed digitization of the entire type collection of African plant specimens.

  • Madagascar is a biologically rich island nation off the east coast of Africa where the Garden has sustained a research program for decades. Two resident botanists are stationed in the capital; they work with a talented staff of 50 local Malagasy botanists and botanists-in-training. The Garden has supported the expansion of the herbarium there, a multi-tiered botanical training program, and development of conservation initiatives and publications. Garden scientists are involved in the creation of forest preserves and are teaching sustainable agricultural techniques to local residents so that they can survive without destroying the forest. Scientists there are working on a Catalogue of Madagascar Plants, a web product providing information over the Internet as it is compiled.
  • In Tanzania, the Garden has a program that includes exploration, capacity building, and conservation. In collaboration with the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the Garden recently completed plant conservation assessments to prepare a Red List of threatened species in the Eastern Arc Mountains and Coastal Forests Hotspot of Tanzania and Kenya.

Asia & Pacific
The Garden plays a pivotal role in opening the rich biological diversity of China to Western scientists.

  • In China, the Garden leads a monumental multi-national project to produce a 50 volume flora, the first English-language edition of the Flora of China. The 25-year project began in 1988. 
  • On the island of New Caledonia in the South Pacific, Garden researchers have discovered several new species and are helping to organize a conservation strategy.
  • In recent years, Garden scientists have gone on collecting expeditions to New Guinea, Turkey, and as one of the first Western science groups admitted in decades, to Iran.
  • The Garden has established permanent collaboration in the Republic of Georgia and is helping to screen Georgian plants for chemicals of pharmaceutical interest. In collaboration with IUCN, Garden scientists and institutions in the Caucasus are preparing a Red List of endemic plants of the Caucasus Biodiversity Hotspot, which includes Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and small portions of Russia, Iran and Turkey.