Saturday, 15 September 2012

What's that plant? If it's in Uganda, Kenya or Tanzania, ask Kew.


Kew botanist Henk Beentje reckons 60,000 or so plant species have been described in the 11 Floras produced by Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. That's about 20% of the world's flora. Well, it would be except that there is a bit of overlap in the floras and there are more than 300,000 species of flowering plant if we include all the ones out there undiscovered.

One of the first was by George Bentham and included around 8,000 species from the newly explored country, Australia. I think we now assume around 20,000 species for that particularly speciose land.

This week Kew celebrated the completion of the Flora of Tropical East Africa, wistfully called FTEA at the conference held to honour the end of a project that began 60 years ago.


Kew might have led and edited the project but 135 scientists (and more than a hundred illustrators) from 21 countries contributed. This is the way modern Kew works - a far cry from George Bentham gorging on the collections and correspondence of Ferdinand Mueller from Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne in the late nineteenth century. And this is not to undervalue Bentham's achievement - completing a Flora of 8,125 species in 15 years, almost single-handed.

The collaborative World Flora Online by 2020 is another kettle of fish. This ambitious project will combine together these 11 Floras plus lots of other information published or collated around the world to create a single identification guide to the plants on Earth. It's likely, and I hope, this flora will use a distributed model, drawing its information from hundreds (thousands?) of sources that can be kept accurate and current by local experts.

But this week we celebrate the publication of 12,500 species of plant, all named and described, in a format largely unchanged from 1952. A massive and impressive achievement.


Images: apart from the cover of a FTEA fascicle the other pictures are from my one, very brief visit, to Kenya in 2011. The planting of Warbugia ugandensis is in the grounds of the World Agroforestry Centre.

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