Future of Botany and Herbaria

While I’ve addressed how my undergraduate program has converted many potential non-plant biologists into plant biologists, often I hear about how many universities do not support botany programs. I’ve experienced this personally, though at the time I was interested in the wildlife biology program. Colorado State University’s college of natural sciences posted above the botany degree pdfs that the checklists were “for students enrolled prior to fall 2004”. Darn. This was fall 2007.

Cats and Taxonomy
Needless to say I prefer keying out in the field and taking careful photo documentation instead of collecting. Fewer interruptions.

In so many ways this does not matter. You can take the exact same courses at different universities and some will print on your transcript “bachelor of science in botany” or “bachelor of science in biology”. Sometimes it’s just a word on a piece of paper. However, sometimes it means the faculty that supported the program have disbanded and no one will orchestrate a come-back. In the case of the university I did attend, the botany and zoology programs discontinued around the time Colorado State stopped accepting new botany students. Both botany (and zoology) programs outline an almost identical curriculum (though Colorado State offers more and more interesting electives). In these cases the courses are still available regardless of which biology discipline you follow. Only a few courses are botany specific and the rest like cell biology and general ecology are required by general biological science majors.

Although I’m sure the cases are different at other schools that cancelled their programs, there is one serious loss no matter what: highly interested students. Arguably the students a good program wants most are the students that are driven enough to dive into such a specific major. When you generalize a botany program into a biology program, many of those serious students will look to a school that’s just as serious–a school that still advertises a degree title that invigorates their passion. Usually such schools have more research opportunities, clubs and other activities that unite like-minded students and faculty. This doesn’t always mean plain biology programs don’t have those benefits, but if a nature-nerd can go to the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry to chose from two dozen programs, about ten of which are botany-infused, it’s hard to pass that up! Indeed, at my school the ecology-oriented students were there because they couldn’t get enough scholarship funding to attend out of state.

Greenbelt plant center
Botany programs include taxonomy courses, which focus heavily on collecting and storing identified plants. These display sample reside in Greenbelt Native Plant Center of Staten Island, NY. (Photo courtesy of Kristine Paulus)

I will take a moment to mention the difference between botany and horticulture. Botany is a general or pure science (anything and everything about plants for the sake for knowledge) and horticulture is an applied science (the stuff about plants that can pertain to its cultivation for industrial uses). Often the careers and research interests overlap, but the university programs are two different worlds.

I came across an Associated Press article about this issue and its effects on the industry. Being able to reliably and accurately identify plant species is integral in many areas of research. The studies don’t have to be about plants, but wildlife habitat, soil conditions, water quality, not to mention biodiversity is a good indication on overall environmental health in cases of industrial contamination and extreme damage from natural disasters. If you conduct a field study plants help you decide where you want to sample. Need a plain waterlogged part of the year? Certain plant species will grow there. Identify the species and you will know to come back after a good rain. Looking for a specific critter? It’ll live among the plants it prefers.

Herbaria at Missouri Botanical Garden by Paul Morris
Missouri Botanical Garden’s herbarium’s way of storing pressed specimens in St. Louis. (Photo courtesy of Paul Morris)

Botany doesn’t have the following that ornithology does. Even if you find a good visual resource, to identify a specimen down to species you often need a microscope, a very fine knife, retrieve the specimen when it has sprouted its reproductive structure (the surest means to identify) and even then you may require a trip to the nearest herbarium. Where is your nearest herbarium? Likely much farther now than it was just 10 or 20 years ago. What is an herbarium? A museum with stacks of 1000-paged atlases, catalogs and plant descriptions, and aisles of special cabinets housing thousands of pressed plant specimens clued to hardy paper and smaller specimens in small bottles in drawers. Rare plants, even the ones your project hopes to discover some new medicinal chemical in, can be impossible to discern from a non-medicinal cousin without comparing to another specimen. No other specimen? Yay! You might have discovered a new species and get to go down the lengthy road of officially naming it yourself.

Fewer botany programs means fewer universities to support herbaria. Larger, wealthier botanical gardens sometimes have herbaria. Unfortunately houses of knowledge such as libraries, museums, herbaria, botanical and zoological gardens, aquaria and research institutions all face the same financial troubles.

I have noticed all I’ve heard about botany programs and herbaria have occurred within the United States. I’m curious how the rest of the world fares in this respect.

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