While biochemists want to map the human genome, U.S. and Canadian botanists are promoting an ambitious project to catalogue the estimated 17,000 species of plants in North America.
The proposed 12 volumes would contain all the names and synonyms for each plant, full descriptions, information about where they occur, biochemical data and discussions of their relationships.
The catalogue would be a valuable scientific tool not only for botanists but also for conservationists, ecologists and others who work with plants, said botanist Nancy Morin of the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis.
The Upjohn Co. of Kalamazoo, Mich., for example, is evaluating 10 plant extracts used in China as herbal remedies. If useful pharmaceuticals are found in the extracts, such a catalogue would be useful in finding identical or closely related plants that grow in North America.
Europe, with 13,650 species, and the Soviet Union, with 17,500 species, have already catalogued their flora, and Australia (18,000 species) and China (30,000 species) are now doing so.
On the other hand, information from many regions of North America, Morin said, "is sparse and exists only in obscure publications." For example, information about California plants, might be found in Madrono, the quarterly journal of the California Botanical Society with a circulation of about 400. "Madrono is not obscure in California, but it certainly is in Missouri," she said.
Other data from early in the century were published in British or European journals that are available only in the largest U.S. botanical libraries.
To further confuse matters, such publications often "were written by different people at different times, and don't always contain the same information," Morin said.
Many plants are also called by one name in one area and by a different name elsewhere because the first discoverer did not give a complete description or the second did not survey the literature carefully enough.
For example, the shrubby ragwort, a shrub with aster-like flowers that is now in bloom along the Pacific coast, is Senecio douglasii in California, but Senecio longilobus in Texas.
Morin, who is organizing the effort, estimates that it will cost $500,000 annually for 12 to 15 years. The money would fund a team of editors, three or four staff scientists who would classify newly discovered plants or those whose identities are in dispute, and a computerized data base containing the information in a readily accessible form.
At least 40 botanists have volunteered to contribute articles to the first volume, and Morin expects several hundred to help with the entire project.
Nonetheless, she has not been able to convince funding agencies to provide the money. Most research funds for cataloguing projects, according to the National Science Foundation, are devoted to tropical plants, which are in danger of being lost because of deforestation.
But Morin and others are optimistic. "This is a project whose time has come," said botanist Theodore Barkley of Kansas State University in Manhattan.