Why it takes a century to get to know a plant
● Discovery is only the start of understanding a species – botanists
It takes up to 100 years to get to know a plant, according to research by scientists at Scotland’s leading botanical garden.
Experts at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE) are playing a crucial part in a global conservation effort to catalogue all life on Earth.
The institution last year formally identified 56 new plants from around the world, many of them threatened species. But while the act of discovering a new species is often seen as a thrilling moment, the research shows it is only the start of getting to know it.
Botanists from the RBGE and Oxford University measured how long it takes for a new species to be collected, named and a minimum number of specimens gathered to provide information about its frequency, geographic distribution, ecology and breeding behaviour. The study, published in the journal Systematics and Biodiversity, reveals it takes an average of 30 years between collecting the first specimen and its publication as a new species.
It then takes another 70 years on average to understand whatitrepresents,makingthe timespan a century in total.
Dr Zoë Goodwin, a tropical botanist at the RBGE and one of the paper’s authors, said:
“The discovery of a new species is just the start of a long process of getting to know it.
“We already know that it takes a number of years from the first collection of a plant until it is published as a new species. The new paper has found that it takes another 70 years after that publication before we have enough correctly named specimens to have an understanding of the distribution, ecology etc of the plant. Think of it like meeting a new person – it takes you 30 years to put a name to their face, then another 70 years to know where they live, their personality, habits and preferences.
“By examining these named specimens, we can start to understand properly in which countries and regions the plant grows, what kind of habitat it lives in, what time of year the plant flowers and fruits, and whether it is at risk of extinction.”
The global inventory of species includes those that have already been named and those that remain to be named.
About 100,000 species of flowering plants have been named in the past 50 years.
Only 16 per cent of new species are published within five years of the first specimen being collected.
Giving plants a name is only the first step in ensuring their future. Even a basic understanding of a species takes a long time to accumulate as the average number of years to collect 15 specimens is 70 years.