In 1753, the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus published Species Plantarum, establishing the binomial (Genus + species) system of naming plants. Each new plant species must be described and published in a recognized scientific journal or book. Today, rules governing plant nomenclature are established at the International Botanical Congress.

SystematicsPlant specimens collected in the field arrive at the Missouri Botanical Garden in an almost constant stream. They are the raw material, the building blocks, of botanical knowledge. Pressed between sheets of paper and accompanied by field notes, they await identification, cataloging, classification and analysis.

Amid these stacks of specimens is where the bulk of the botanists' research takes place. The exacting science of systematics–also known as taxonomy–is their primary activity. The Missouri Botanical Garden is known for its expertise in this highly specialized and valued field.

Experts in systematics document organisms and group them in a way that reflects their evolutionary relationships. Garden systematists use a variety of techniques to learn the basic characteristics of a plant under study, from simple measurements of plant parts and shapes to more sophisticated microscopic, biochemical and molecular approaches. Then, they can assign the plant to a particular taxonomic group based on its similarities to others.

Monographic research refers to the study of particular groups of plants, regardless of where they grow, and revision of their scientific classification if necessary. Almost every botanist at the Garden specializes in one or more plant families.

Floristic research involves the massive job of producing a complete descriptive record of all plant species found in a particular geographic region, based on extensive exploration and collecting. The most ambitious floras document the plants of large areas, continents, or regions of high diversity.

It can take decades to complete a major flora. To speed the dissemination of information, investigators may first produce a checklist–a bare-bones inventory of a region's plants. Unlike a flora, it contains no descriptions or illustrations of plants, but is limited to names, bibliographic references, abbreviated geographical distributions and other associated data.

As floristic studies proceed, all information is entered into TROPICOS, the Garden's botanical database, where it is constantly updated and available online. This creates an open-ended library of urgently needed information that is immediately accessible to users worldwide.