Species Conservation

Plants are the foundation of Earth’s ecosystems, providing a great range of benefits, including improved water and air quality, food, medicine, soil stabilization, and protection against floods. However, species extinction is occurring at unprecedented levels due to habitat loss, unsustainable land-use practices, and rapid climate change. Saving plants is at the core of the mission of the Missouri Botanical Garden, and Garden scientists are actively researching how to minimize species loss and developing innovative methods for conserving plant diversity. Results and discoveries from the research of Garden scientists provide the foundation for conservation actions designed to halt the loss of plant diversity around the world.

Species assessments: Scientists at the Garden are leading assessments of the conservation status of plant species in several regions of the world, focusing on important areas for plant diversity where the need for conservation investment is most urgent. Within the Mesoamerica and Tropical Andes biodiversity hotspots of Central and South America, Garden scientists are conducting assessments of the conservation status of nearly 7,000 plant species. Garden scientists have collaborated in projects led by local institutions in Ecuador and Peru.The Garden is also collaborating with the International Union for Conservation of Nature /Species Survival Commission (IUCN/SSC) and other institutions on four important regional plant conservation assessment projects: for Madagascar; for the Eastern Arc Mountains and Coastal Forests of the East African Tanzania/Kenya Hotspot; for the Caucasus Hotspot; and for the Indochina region of the Indo-Burma Biodiversity Hotspot. Researchers are also incorporating climate change into vulnerability assessments of rare plant species in the United States. Collectively, this work provides decision-makers and conservation managers with scientifically rigorous information necessary to protect threatened species and manage key natural areas.

Ex situ conservation: As a safeguard against extinction, the Garden protects the most threatened plants outside of their natural habitats in seed banks and living collections. Seed banks are long-term storage facilities where seeds are dried and stored at low temperatures in order to preserve them for the future conservation and restoration uses. For the past 30 years, MBG has collected genetically representative samples of globally imperiled U.S. plant species for the Center for Plant Conservation’s National Collection of Endangered Plants. To ensure that the banked seed can be used for future conservation purposes, Garden scientists are also conducting research on how to break dormancy and germinate seeds of these threatened species. In 2012, the Garden established a new seed bank facility at its Shaw Nature Reserve to support and enhance the mission of the science, conservation, and horticulture programs. A long-term goal of the new seed-banking program is to collect the entire Missouri eco-regional flora by 2020, focusing in the initial phase on the flora of the Ozarks. Species with seeds that cannot be dried and stored using traditional methods must be preserved using alternative methods, such as cryopreservation at partner institutions, or propagation for the Garden’s Living Collections. Across the globe, the Garden’s William L. Brown Center coordinates the Sacred Seeds program, a network of sanctuaries that aims to preserve locally important plants and knowledge. This combination of conservation methods highlights the importance of collaboration by seed banks and living collections to preserve plant material for the future.

Endangered species reintroduction and management: Garden scientists are working to recover endangered plants in their native habitats and prevent their extinction in the wild. Programs in the United States, Madagascar, and Nicaragua are monitoring population trends and discovering new populations of endangered species. When wild populations are in rapid decline, Garden scientists conduct experiments with endangered plant populations to determine the most effective management practices for stabilizing and improving their long-term viability. Using ex situ collections, Garden scientists in the United States and Madagascar are also reintroducing endangered plants back into native habitats to bolster their population sizes and reduce their extinction risk. In a related and collaborative effort with other botanical garden researchers, Garden scientists recently developed rigorous, scientifically-based protocols to reintroduce plants from ex situ collections. Efforts to recover species through sound conservation science are resulting in many successes, such as the recent delisting of the Tennessee purple coneflower (Echinacea tennesseensis) from the United States Endangered Species Act.