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Missouri Botanical Garden mounts milestone 6 millionth herbarium specimen

(ST. LOUIS): The Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis operates one of the largest and fastest growing herbaria in the world, and the second largest in the western hemisphere. With the addition of a specimen of Anthurium centimillesimum, a gigantic new aroid species from Ecuador, the Garden's permanent collection of pressed and dried plant specimens has reached a milestone of six million specimens.

A herbarium is essentially a "library" of plant specimens. The Garden's herbarium includes about five-and-a-half-million vascular plants (flowering plants, ferns and conifers) and 500,000 bryophytes (mosses, liverworts and hornworts). The bryophyte collection is also one of the largest of its kind in the world.

"The importance of these 'libraries' of plants cannot be overstated," said Vice President, Science and Conservation, Dr. Robert Magill. "There are an estimated 300,000 recognized, named species of plants, with perhaps an additional 100,000 species still to be discovered. Herbaria are vital resources that allow botanists to organize information about this enormous diversity of plant life. Without a system of documentation that includes actual samples of the plants, it would be nearly impossible to make conclusions about the roles and relationships of plants, or to even verify the discovery of a species new to science."

Plant specimens are collected in the wild, pressed in newspaper folds, and dried in a wooden-framed plant press before being sent to the Garden's herbarium for study and identification. At the Garden, newly received specimens are counted, recorded, and treated by freezing to kill insects that might eat them. Permanent labels are prepared from the collector's field catalog for each specimen. The label contains information on where and when the specimen was gathered, by whom, and any features about the plant that are not readily apparent from the pressed specimen. The specimens are then studied by plant taxonomists with specialized knowledge of the group to which the plant in question belongs. Taxonomists will either identify the specimens, or recognize them as new to science. One specimen from each collection is mounted and added to the Garden's herbarium. Any duplicates are distributed to other herbaria in exchange for specimens from their areas of activity; the Garden exchanges specimens with about 400 other herbaria worldwide.

The Missouri Botanical Garden's six millionth herbarium specimen was collected in late 2007 by Dr. Thomas Croat, P. A. Schulz Curator of Botany. Croat discovered Anthurium centimillesimum while on a collecting trip in Ecuador's Pichincha province, in an area of tropical premontane rain forest. The giant plant was found growing on a steep bank next to a pasture.

"At first I considered it impossible that this species was new, simply because the area was previously well collected," said Croat. "Still, after returning to the Garden, I went through all the existing species and none came close to this Anthurium."

Croat has been collecting plant specimens in the wild for over 41 years as part of the Garden's science and conservation team. Anthurium centimillesimum is the 100,000th collection made by Croat, making him the fourth most prolific plant collector in the history of botany. Of his vast collections, all but 4,500 have been deposited at the Garden.

The new Anthurium is a member of the aroid or Araceae family, also known as the Philodendron family. Aroids make up the largest group of ornamental pot plants, and more aroid species are counted among the top dozen plants in North American sales than any other plant family. The Missouri Botanical Garden is a major center of aroid research, with one of the largest living collections in the world. In some cases, it is unknown whether the species are still found in nature, or whether the Garden's plants are the only survivors.

Garden scientists conduct field research in 36 countries and six continents around the globe in an effort to collect, identify, and preserve plant specimens. Staff focus their efforts on areas of high biological diversity, with the goal of characterizing and grouping the plant life they discover.

The expansiveness of the Garden's science and conservation programs allows the institution to coordinate in-house editorial activity through MBG Press, the Garden's publishing arm. Plants collected in the wild and accessioned to the herbarium form the basis of scholarly publications, including floras, which document the known information about the plant species found in a particular geographic region. These taxonomic tools allow the Garden's wealth of plant information to be readily accessed by a wide variety of users throughout the worldwide scientific community.

"A fundamental part of our mission is to characterize, describe, and name the patterns of diversity found in the plant world," said Dr. James Solomon, herbarium curator. "We then build the tools that allow people to learn about, understand, and communicate about that diversity. In order to find medicines or sustainably manage lands, you have to be able to recognize and know the species involved. Our work is helping to synthesize knowledge from around the globe to make this possible."


Contact: Julie Bierach
Missouri Botanical Garden

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