U.S., British scientists draw up list of world's plants

Wednesday, December 29, 2010 | 4:43 p.m. CST; updated 6:56 p.m. CST, Wednesday, December 29, 2010
In this Oct. 8 photo, people walk among trees shedding their leaves and changing to seasonal autumn colors at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in London. U.S. and British scientists have drawn up a list of all the world's known land plants - a 300,000-species strong compendium which they say will boost conservation and help regulate trade and medicine.

LONDON — British and U.S. scientists say they've compiled the most comprehensive list of land plant species ever published — a 300,000-species strong compendium that they hope will boost conservation, trade and medicine.

The list, drawn up by researchers at Kew Gardens in London and the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis, is intended to help resolve one of botany's most basic problems: Figuring out which plants go by what name.


Some plants have been labeled differently by researchers operating in different countries over the past century, while in other cases the different variants of the same plant have been erroneously identified as belonging to different species. There are also cases in which plants names' have been applied mistakenly or just misspelled.

Although a rose by any other name may still smell as sweet, scientists say that attaching different labels to the same plant can rob researchers of the chance to get the information they need.

"If you only know it by one of its many names you only get part of the story," said Eimear Nic Lughadha, the senior scientist at Kew responsible for the list.

It's a problem that frustrates everyone from agricultural regulators to pharmaceutical researchers.

"Imagine trying to find everything that's ever been published about a plant: Which chemicals are in it, whether it's poisonous or not, where is it found," said Alan Paton, one of Nic Lughadha's colleagues at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. "To find that information, you need to know all of the different scientific names that have been used for it."

The plant compendium aims to clear up that confusion by putting all the various names in one place — and sorting out which ones apply to which plant. To that end researchers in the U.S. and Britain have been scooping up existing databases — with names such as GrassBase and iPlants — and combining them with checklists from organizations such as the World Checklist of Selected Plant Families and The International Legume Database and Information Service.

Kew's final list carries more than 1 million scientific names, of which 300,000 are accepted names for plant species. Another 480,000 are additional names, or synonyms, for those species. The rest are unresolved — they could apply to a previously identified plant, or they could describe a different organism altogether.

Botanists are still working their way through the backlog of unassigned names.

"Finishing that list will be a long task," Nic Lughadha said. "And, of course, new species are being described all the time."

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