Ask a philosopher why we name things, and the reply will be: human nature. It’s how we distinguish a chair from a couch, a pond from an ocean, them from us. First among the things we learned to name were plants. Our long evolution would have been a very short one had we not found ways to, say, differentiate hemlock from basil.
Yet while all people in all places name plants that they use, it took the discovery of the New World to inspire the idea that one could or should classify all plants. For 233 years, generation after generation of botanist has been trying to know North America root and branch. What began as an epic quest for knowledge’s sake is now seen as an urgent bid to record our “biological heritage.”
As scientists, they are assaulting the mystery of mysteries--the search to understand the origins of life. As environmentalists, they are in a race against the boundless forces that built this country: bulldozer and plough. To those taking part, it could not be more important: These plants provide the air we breathe, food, shelter--life itself. Recording their ranges means that if they retreat to higher altitudes and ever more northerly parallels, it will be the clincher to demonstrate to a disbelieving government the reality of global warming.
Since 1983, a vast modern effort has gathered up more than 850 botanists now working on the “Flora of North America” project. To critics, the scientists have eyes bigger than their walking shoes. The study takes in the U.S., Canada, Greenland, St. Pierre and Miquelon. To cover it, each botanist is assigned a plant group. From recorded sightings going back centuries, they establish a range where this plant is known to occur. Cascades and the Sierra for pines, the Appalachian Trail for hickory, the Great Plains for buffalo grass, and so on, thousands and thousands of times.
Then they add their lifetimes to the trawl. There are organized collecting trips in the wilderness, but life becomes an expedition, says Helen Jeude, technical editor of the project. “Botanists are terrible drivers because you’ll be going along an interstate at 70 and they’ll spot something and--screech--they’re off to the side to photograph it. They’re always in search of one more plant. Just to be sure. One more.” Having determined a territory, the botanist must then look close, closer and closest at a single specimen, characterizing it past the outward appearance, past the thickness of the hairs on the leaf, right down to its chromosomes. The DNA will be used to plumb its ancestry right back to primordial sludge. It will be measured and drawn so painstakingly that the artist must wear magnifying glasses.
Learned studies will be written, maps rendered, and everything will be reviewed and reviewed again. The slowly accumulating load of detail is then sent to the Missouri Botanical Garden where, say the project’s organizers, it will constitute an environmental check-up for America.
The continent is not proving easy to doctor. The project is four years overdue and less than half-finished, and government funding has all but dried up. Discovering rare plants isn’t good for housing starts, agriculture or oil exploration. Moreover, only essential publishing costs are paid, with botanists working for free. The country that spent $260 million on the “Genesis” probe for solar dust, whose capsule crashed in the Utah Salt Flats last September, has in the last decade put less than $1 million of government funds into the Flora of North America project.
As the odds of success worsen, the sense of urgency has redoubled. A wilderness once too vast to comprehend is being eroded at a furious pace. The visionaries are not just aging, but dying. The people with the money are losing faith. Two years ago, in a last-ditch effort to save the project, the organizers brought in Peter Stevens, a former star of the Harvard University botany department. James Reveal, botany professor emeritus from the University of Maryland, whose stock in trade is using exact scientific terms, calls this disheveled Englishman “an out-and-out genius.”
Nobody has a better grasp than Stevens of how the language of botany was forged, and how it is now being re-forged. If botanists working today studied the subject, they read Stevens. If they’re part of a rebel group out to revolutionize their field, they admire Stevens. Yet as he answered a plea to lend his name to the project, it wasn’t at all clear which it needed: genius or heart?
Another man in his place would have played the conservation card. Stevens will listen politely enough to environmental pleas, then say in his precise English accent, “We do this kind of thing in general because we like it.”
American plants brought back to Europe by tall-ship botanists inspired the golden age of botany, but the man who set the tone was a Swede and, by all accounts, an egomaniac: the 18th century physician Carolus Linnaeus. Toward the end of his life, he dubbed himself the “prince of botany.”
He began as a boy entranced with meadows, birds and bees. Biographer Wilfrid Blunt offers an account of how a 4-year-old Linnaeus listened raptly as his father, a Lutheran rector, once delivered the homily, “Every flower had its name,” but when the child forgot one, the cleric rebuked him.
Linnaeus grew into a compulsive organizer and gifted naturalist, who saw it as his calling to put God’s house in order. Plants collected by apostles and independent explorers from around the world were pressed, dried and shipped to him, where they were examined and named in his herbarium. By the time he died in 1778, he had named 7,700 species of plants--in a world that was supposed to contain only 10,000.
All flowers may have had their names, but Linnaeus brought method and his own notions of music to the christenings. Names were limited to two words, a noun-adjective combination that gives botanical Latin its clip-clopping phonetics. If you Google Linnaeus, the binomial system is most often cited as his abiding contribution. Reveal disagrees. Linnaeus’ crowning accomplishment, he argues, was introducing a “species concept.” Many plants have distinct characteristics, such as oaks with their acorns. Until Linnaeus, no one had devised a system of grouping to reflect those qualities. He organized plants according to the architecture of their genitalia, what became known as “the sexual system.”
A kinky system was better than no system. However, laboring in the shadow of the French Revolution, the botanist Antoine-Laurent de Jussieu was refining a “natural system.” It was a better fit for plants, which were described according to the structure and appearance of their roots, stems, leaves, buds and berries, then put in distinct groups according to similarities of the sum of their parts.
As explorers pushed west in the 19th century, the New World developed its own seats of botany. At Harvard, one of the first acts of the father of American botany was to jettison the sex stuff. Asa Gray integrated the natural system into the hierarchical structure of Linnaeus. In 1873, Gray retired to undertake an attempt at a sweeping continental plant survey. When he died 15 years later, it was nowhere near complete, but the dream now pervaded American botany.
Wars and a Depression got in the way, but by the 1960s it was again a perennial topic at botanical meet-ups. In 1973, a Smithsonian-backed venture came so close to actually happening that the country’s authority on the sunflower family, Ted Barkley, sold his house in Kansas and moved to Washington, D.C., to start work. When he got there, all bets were off. “They had all of a sudden decided everything was going to be computer-based,” Jeude says. “Nobody at that time even had computers.”
Chastening as it was, this defeat inspired a blockbuster version in 1983 out of the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis. Carnegie Mellon and Harvard pledged help. Eight Canadian research institutions were in, as were 33 universities, botanical gardens and herbaria across North America. By the late 1980s, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had signed on, as had the National Science Foundation, the Pew Charitable Trust and a number of other foundations.
When the Mexican government announced that it wanted to do its flora separately, it was a case of bad news and good news. It amputated the fecund southern tip of the continent, but it also cut the species load by half. The project now called “The Flora of North America (North of Mexico)” had 20,100 species of plants to cover and a decade to do it.
It is hard to think of a more unlikely savior than Peter Stevens. at Harvard, he is known as the professor who wore shorts in February. “He’s very difficult to talk to,” says Reveal, a project contributor, “but if you can get him to slow down momentarily, he has an incredible mind and very deep understanding of the intellectual development of nomenclature. The problem with Peter is he can’t speak fast enough to keep up with what he’s thinking.”
Extreme problems required extreme measures. No sooner had a newly funded, newly organized, third-time-lucky Flora of North America received funding in the late 1980s then it was hit by the mother of all paradigm shifts. Modern genetics. Focus shifted from the way plants looked to how their molecules functioned. A rival arm of botany was emerging called “phylogenetics” that could trace the flow of a plant’s genes back to continental drift. By 1998, it had a new langage, the “PhyloCode.” Young scientists followed the grant money out of the fields into the labs. Old scientists were having to become bilingual.
By 2000, America had gone to the moon and headed to Mars. But the Flora of North America project had produced only four volumes--an introduction; one on ferns and conifers; another on magnolias and wind-pollinated plants; and water plants. Patience wore so thin at the National Science Foundation that middle-aged grant committee members were remarking how it was the new thing when they had been graduate students. Project managing editor James Zarucchi enlisted Stevens, his professor at Harvard and curator of the Arnold Arboretum and Gray Herbarium. What Stevens lacked in suitability for a committee he made up for in repute and, frankly, accessibility. The Oxford and Edinburgh-educated Englishman was already in St. Louis. He had decamped to Missouri after Harvard denied his wife tenure. Short of summoning Asa Gray from the dead, if anyone could get this project back on track, it was Stevens.
Not just anyone could get hundreds of already underpaid botanists to work for free. Even dissenting phylo-ists would surely react to his tap on their shoulder, just as any budding computer programmer would wish to impress Bill Gates. If anyone could retrieve the Internet rights--naively sold to Oxford University Press-- it was Stevens. However, when the editorial board of the Flora of North America project agreed to an interview one sleeting St. Louis day in the Missouri Botanical Garden, it never occurred to them that his particular brilliance might embarrass them.
Stevens waited for the group next to a library containing a rare collection of pre-Linnaean floras. He wasn’t in shorts, but cargo pants, a rumpled, untucked shirt and jumper. He was reading as he waited, standing up, like a scholarly stork, his moth-eaten red scarf puddling on the book’s edge.
He had asked both Zarucchi and Luc Brouillet, a professor at the University of Montreal and French Canadian coordinator for the project, to join the interview. Zarucchi was the picture of reasonableness and grooming, gray and tweed. Brouillet was shorter, rounder, more dapper and far more voluble--the product of a place with better food and higher passions.
After a seemly round of deference--Stevens insisting he wasn’t important, Zarucchi calling him “our white knight"--it broke down into an axis of attitudes: Brouillet’s French passion in one corner, Zarucchi’s Midwestern stoicism in another and the prickly English genius in a third.
The most obvious points were dispatched quickly--the early bungling, persistent lateness, funding (“sad”), competing molecular data (“cross referencing”). It was all very civilized until the question came up: Why do it?
“You want to identify the plants,” said Stevens.
“It is an issue that mandates individuals to go out and preserve what is rare,” declared Brouillet. “How do we know what we have is rare if we don’t have it somewhere in a book?”
“If organisms have any right to exist, then that’s going to happen,” Stevens objected.
“I would put it outside that!” Brouillet cried. “I would say why do developers need to wreck another piece of land? Why can we not control our own development? It’s just greed!”
“Because of sprawl,” said Zarucchi in his measured voice, “the city of St. Louis has lost half of its population in 30 years. It’s all moved out and all kinds of areas have been developed.”
This was too much for Stevens to bear. He made his name teaching botanists how belief in God had skewed 18th and 19th century perceptions of the natural world. Now money colored our ability to take nature by its own terms, not ours.
“I find this a very confusing conversation to have,” he exclaimed, gulping. “You can’t social engineer through a flora. If you put dollar signs on plants, then conservation, etcetera, etcetera, depends on the size of the dollar sign, and then it’s a question of balancing one dollar sign against another dollar sign. And the problem here is that neither the dollar sign that’s fixed to your plant, nor the dollar sign that’s attached to some other thing that your plant is being balanced against, is fixed. So basically I don’t think that is a stable proposition.”
“To me, to try and preserve things simply based on economic value is basically buying into the system that’s causing all the problems.”
Stevens continued. “If what you mean to say is that you need to know the organisms in your environment if it is to keep on functioning, as it has to do for you to survive, then that is a perfectly reasonable argument.”
The group relaxed and small talk resumed as they set out across black ice to tour the garden. A wet, not quite freezing late winter wind blew away the fatigue and bruised feelings. Zarucchi began recounting how the botanical garden had to be moved some time back because of pollution from soft coal. Stevens remarked on how our gardens are too clean, and bent to muss newly raked leaves around a tree. Brouillet was sulky. Somehow his message wasn’t resonating. Earlier, he had tried to drive it home by using as an example the feral palms of Los Angeles, displaced from the desert to urban shopping malls and now a common weed across the city. “We destroy their native habitats. I find it sweet when some of them take revenge.”
How strange, these accountants of nature.
Money. Linnaeus’ great patron was George Clifford, a director of the Dutch East India Company. Almost 300 years later, industry still holds some purse strings. The handsome red brick building at the Missouri Botanical Garden housing the Flora of North America Project was donated by Monsanto.
But as a rule, funding for studies of wild flora doesn’t come from biotech companies and agribusiness, but from nonprofits or the government, more specifically, from the National Science Foundation.
When discussing how money is given out, James Rodman, program director in the foundation’s division of environmental biology, takes pains to emphasize a single point: Scientists don’t control how the federal government funds science. Politicians do. “I’m sure my colleagues out in the community are amazed and appalled at what they would consider the incredible disparity,” he says.
If we are bothered by this, says Rodman, then it’s in our hands. We should write our congressperson. All the project needs to survive, says Stevens, is about half a million a year, or “the cost of one military Humvee.”
As far as things are set up now, grants for the flora project, when they are made, come from a government biodiversity fund of about $11 million a year. This not only covers flora, but fauna, not only the U.S., but the world. Rodman estimates that $3 million to $4 million goes to “the plant side of things,” and of that, much goes to the tropics. They cannot afford to make North America a high priority, he says. Too much of the tropics remains unexplored and under threat.
Frustration among U.S. botanists is so high that if one cracks the lid of their box of woes, a storm blows out. The most common misconception that Barbara Ertter, collections manager at UC Berkeley’s Jepson Herbarium, runs into is the conviction that the study has already been done, that it was part of the U.S. Geological mapping surveys.
Then there is the “only” problem. The U.S. and Canada are regarded as so well picked over that, based on a rate of 50 new discoveries a year, a going estimate for the number of undiscovered species in North America is “only” 5% of the flora, or 8,000 new species.
For plant collectors, there’s nothing “only” about it, but meet them and it’s also clear why grant committees gamble that they will do the job for free. Stevens was not being facetious when he said they do it because they like it, only guilty of understatement. They love it. As outwardly different as they might seem--as a Brouillet, a Zarucchi or a Stevens--in one fundamental way they are the same. Show them a weed pushing up through cracks in the sidewalk and they see the history of the world. Even on the meanest streets of the meanest city, they’d likely abandon the car and go over to photograph it, says Jeude, the technical editor. “It goes beyond interest. It’s an obsession,”
So much rests on their interested squint, their quirk of regard. Where most of us in 2001 in San Luis Potosi would only have seen a tough little plug of a weed in a Mexican ravine, Travis Columbus saw Schaffnerella gracilis, a grass that hadn’t been recorded since the 19th century, and thought to have been grazed and flooded out of existence.
Columbus works on grass genetics at Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden in Claremont. Focusing on this rarest of plugs, he photographed it, charted its position with GPS technology, measured it, plucked a sample and brought that back to Claremont. Here he managed to match it to the last recorded sample--from 1877. He preserved it, propagated seed for more, extracted DNA. Why?
“I’m a miner,” he says. By recording everything he can about a plant, he puts it on file for scientists studying drought resistance, grassland restoration, forage--anything involving grass. To these plant-finders, every plant holds a story, of a place and of the workings of nature.
As such, Claremont botanists are working hard to survey Riverside before developers pave it over. It was the redness of a rock outcropping that told Columbus’ colleague, Steve Boyd, that the ceanothus growing near Vail Lake might be an undiscovered breed. It was, an extremely rare one, and now a number of stands in the area are protected.
To find out if a plant is new or not, and then to get their claims on record, collectors must check it against known species. To show how it’s done, Columbus leads a tour at the Rancho Santa Ana herbarium, where six women stand at large tables pressing, drying and tagging plant specimens. The best ones have a flower and a bud, says one of the women. Where there is only one sample of a plant, it will stay there, says another. Where there are more, copies will be sent around the country.
These women work for free, too. They are housewives and yet more of the anonymous faces of the Flora of North America project.
The Jepson Herbarium in Berkeley also runs on volunteerism, says Ertter, and not just pressing and drying, but also plant collecting. A semi-retired construction worker, David Gowen, recently surprised her with a new species of woolly star flower that he found hiking on Lime Ridge, at an old cement quarry in the East Bay.
When she tells him that a reporter wants to hear about it, he thinks she’s joking. It was only six inches tall with “minute” white flowers, he says, but it made him question the way we build. “There’s this perception that if you lose one little plant, who cares?” he says. “But until you’re one of those people who saves one of those little plants, it doesn’t hit you. If we’re losing little things, we might be losing bigger things.”
Ertter is worried about the bigger things, the 95% of discovered plants. In a recent study of Mt. Diablo, she witnessed a steep decline in Western clover. These once “abundant” species, manna to grizzly bears, were “still present,” she says, “but I don’t call them common anymore.” She doesn’t know where decline will become extinction. “When you fall off a cliff, everything seems to be fine until you hit the bottom.”
Back at the National Science Foundation offices in Arlington, Va., Rodman is aware of these botanists’ dedication, their loves, their fears. Foundation support did dry up for the project, he says. The delays, the conversion to computers, the shift to molecular work, the disappearance of Mexico from the survey, pressure to work in the tropics all took their toll. But he objects to the inference that they withdrew completely. For example, in 2002, $300,000 went to what they view as the make-or-break phase of the project.
This coincided with a $3 million grant from the Chanticleer Foundation in Pennsylvania. There was only one condition: the Flora of North America project had to deliver two volumes a year.
The man who could set the pace was Ted Barkley. After losing his house in a bid to get the project going in 1973, Barkley returned to the Midwest. There, in a massive effort, he helped bring together botanists from Kansas, Nebraska, the Dakotas, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Missouri, Iowa and Minnesota to produce the Flora of the Great Plains.
On that basis, the foundation chose Barkley to jump-start the stalled national project. He would do it with the sunflower family. Botanists like to say that the only place they don’t grow is underwater. It would require three volumes. Pulling them off would be the single greatest feat of the Flora of North America Project.
Equipped with just over half a million dollars, Barkley moved a team to the Botanical Research Institute of Texas in Ft. Worth. Jeude joined him from the Missouri office to complete the staff of five. They had their work cut out for them. The sunflower family has 2,438 species. It would take 80 botanists, 30 regional reviewers, 4,000 plant specimens and three years.
“We set up the project this time so it could survive anything,” Jeude says. Time was called on collecting. In every state with sunflowers, botanists who had spent their lives combing hillsides, forests, highway verges, who had given up holidays, left their spouses and bored children sitting in cars while they photographed and measured weeds had to get to their desks with what they had, what they knew. “Everybody wants to find one more specimen to be sure,” says Jeude. “The one on the other side of the hill.”
Now it was time to write the treatments, pulling together all the data, traditional and molecular. Young botanists would get the easiest assignments. A botanist would be hired to fill in for contributors who promised treatments but flaked. Jeude would send their articles to reviewers to be checked for accuracy. Each plant would be depicted in an immaculate line-drawing (it “focuses the eye in a way that color doesn’t,” Stevens says).
Entries would be edited to ensure consistent terms and style. They were then sent to Harvard for a name check. In what might seem a conundrum, North America has four times more scientific names for plants than plants themselves. Plants have a way of being discovered repeatedly. The job of nomenclature editor Kanchi Gandhi is to decide which name is legitimate, and to demote the others to synonyms.
That’s not his day job, which is working as index manager at Harvard’s Gray Herbarium. Gandhi estimated that he worked 10 to 13 hours a day, plus more on weekends. The overtime was not paid. The other 130 scientists on the sunflowers also worked for free.
“It’s a labor of love,” Jeude says.
Barkley had the ability to meet people in a lunch-line and have converted them to botany by checkout, she says. Part of it she attributes to an uncanny gift for languages. “Not just foreign languages,” she adds, “but really foreign ones, like Hungarian.” She can’t remember how many times he astonished staff by greeting a foreign visitor in his native tongue. When staff went out to a Cypriot restaurant, he gave career advice to the waitress--in Greek. Once a job was assigned, he would phone the author in whatever language worked to woo results.
Last July, already suffering from cancer, Barkley was in the lab examining specimens two days before the heart attack that killed him. The shock in Ft. Worth is still tangible. But since then, says Zarucchi, Jeude and the team have completed one of the three volumes, which will go to press in December. The other two are on target for publication next year.
That will take the project to 12 volumes and, they hope, restore their credibility with the National Science Foundation. They plan to have the series of 30 finished by 2011.
Since lending his name to the stalled project, Stevens has resumed his own research, says Zarucchi. The new figurehead is Luc Brouillet. Barkley’s widow, Mary, remembers Brouillet well. When he was on sabbatical in Texas, she says, “We had Luc in our home about every Sunday for supper.”
And so he will be there on Thanksgiving weekend, to deliver an address at Ted Barkley’s memorial service. After a celebration at St. Paul Presbyterian Church in North Richmond Hills, the ashes of a man who loved sunflowers will be scattered on Konza Prairie.
Joan DeFato, retired librarian of the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden, and Tiana Franklin of the Botanical Research Institute of Texas assisted with research for this report.