Thursday, 3 December 2009

Valuing Plant Namers


I'm in Armidale on the New England Tablelands, attending (part of) the annual Australian Systematic Botany Society conference. This is a meeting where people who discover, document, classify, relationise (OK, I made that word up - they try to track down evolutionary relationships) and biogeographise (again - this time its about where plants live and why) plants.

There are about 100 people here, from all over Australia, with a smattering from The Netherlands, New Zealand, the UK and the USA. Each meeting has a theme and this one is 'Systematic Botany: from science to society', picking up on the importance of plant classification (that's a large part of what 'systematists' do) to developing foods and other products, making land use decisions, biosecurity and so on. That is, it's important work and these people do it.

I was part of a panel for a workshop about accrediting people who identify plants. There is a concern that some reports being prepared for some of our most important land use decisions include misidentifications. This means information is lacking or misleading, leading to wrong decisions.

Lots of professions have accreditation of some kind - lawyers, engineers, nurses etc. - so it's not so novel. Accreditation might also help value the often extensive expertise and experience that goes into even a single plant identification. The best comparison is possibly a single consultation with your GP or specialist.

There was some debate about whether it might be better to start with a quality assurance set-up or a series of guidelines, then move to accreditation. In the end the society decided to prepare a proposal for the heads of Australian herbaria and ultimately governments to work towards a national system.

The rest of the meeting provided evidence of the talent available in Australia in plant systematics, and the size of the problem we face. Not only is there a lack of recognition (by some) of the skills required to identify a plant, a large chunk of our flora is still undiscovered or undocumented. New DNA techniques give whole new perspectives on the evolutionary tree and lead to changes in names and classifications systems. Lots of exciting new discoveries, and more to come.

I won't list all the topics covered in the meeting - you can find the full program at the University of New England website - but just in one morning yesterday we heard about various of the Australian heaths (now in a subfamily of Ericaceae, rather than their own Epacridaceae), a couple of sedges, a grass, Australian stink lilies (in the family of the Titan Arum), she-oaks and the fringe lily (another of those genera - like the trigger plant - with a couple of species in eastern Australia and a huge wad - about 40 this time I think - in Western Australia.

Image: Given I didn't bring my camera, I've used one of my pictures of Epacris longifolia, a favourite Australian heath of mine and one that grows very nicely in my home garden.

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