Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Floral Catalog: Garden Compiles Database

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Floral Catalog: Garden Compiles Database

Article excerpt

As they fanned out across the forests, prairies and swamps of North America centuries ago, part of what explorers did was collect plants for scientists back East and in England.

Amid the musty smell of dried leaves in their labs, the scientists tried to sort and describe the plants. The task was never completed.

Until now.

In a milestone of plant science, an effort led by the Missouri Botanical Garden has produced the first two volumes in a catalog that eventually will list and describe all 20,000 species of plants in North America.

The catalog, Flora of North America, will bring together all the basic information about wild plants in the United States, Canada and Greenland. It provides a single, dependable source of information for saving endangered species, finding new medicines, developing plant-breeding programs, controlling weeds and other projects.

"The Flora is a gold mine of information, not just for professional botanists, but also for gardeners and amateur naturalists," Nancy Morin, assistant director of the botanical garden, said Thursday.

Morin organized the effort by hundreds of U.S. and Canadian botanists, including a dozen at the Missouri garden. The first two volumes are to be published next month.

The complete Flora will fill 14 volumes. The work has taken a decade so far and is expected to take another 12 years. Its budget has grown to $1 million a year, supported by the National Science Foundation and philanthropic groups.

These books won't make good stocking stuffers. Each of the first two volumes costs $75, runs close to 400 pages and weighs more than 3 pounds.

Still, they are sure to become well-thumbed reference works in libraries around the world.

Volume 1 is a series of essays on the natural history, classification and other aspects of plants. Volume 2 is an in-depth survey of the ferns and gymnosperms, including evergreens, pines and ginkos.

"There has never before been one place to obtain all of the information this project is providing," Morin said. "It pulls together all the bits and pieces of information - and it's all been very carefully checked."

The Flora brings the plant sciences into the computer age: It's the first of its kind in computer database form. That makes it an electronic treasure trove of technical information that scientists around the world can probe.

Barbara Murray of the University of Alaska Museum in Fairbanks did just that last year when she wanted an update on granite mosses. …

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