For the final talk in the Oxford Botanic Garden's Autumn Plant Sciences Lecture series Professor Robert Scotland, from the University's Department of Plant Sciences, chose to speak on the ipomoea genus and more generally the problems faced by taxonomists in his discipline.
On the way in to the room, Professor Scotland had laid out taxonomic drawings by Rosemary Wise, which were exquisite and provided an extra insight into the work done by the department. It became clear that the department we have in Oxford is prolific and an important asset to the study of plant sciences internationally. Professor Scotland caveated his praise of his and his colleagues' work by the admission that he would refrain from bragging if he could. However, he told us, it really must be acknowledged how important the department is on the world stage in terms of output; this is typical of the academic study of botany, in which there are a few key players, the "big-hitters of botany" who have done the majority of the work in documenting and categorising plants and insects. Indeed Rosemary Wise, who also works for the department, has had a very fruitful career in taxonomic illustration - she has illustrated between 12,000 and 14,000 different plants in her time.
The main subject of Professor Scotland's talk were the problems faced by botanists like those in Oxford. Over the last forty years, specimen collection has doubled thanks to globalisation and cheaper air travel, and it had also been going, albeit at a slower rate, for hundreds of years beforehand. This is obviously a good thing in many ways, and Professor Scotland was keen to acknowledge how proliferation in documentation is generally positive. However, this acceleration in collection has also resulted in a huge amount of synonymy; optimistic estimates suggest that at least half of the world's plant specimens do not have the right name.
One outcome of the vast number of plant specimens already existing is that species discovery in the modern world usually consists of botanists rediscovering existing monographs and identifying them in a new way, as opposed to finding them in the wild. Perhaps this is a disappointing reality for those imagining Professor Scotland and his team jumping with joy in the jungle, but this is to say nothing of how daunting this prospect must be for the botanists themselves, who know that so many plants have already been found, and that trying to understand them is more a question of admin than adventure.
Professor Scotland finished the talk by showing us how important taxonomic research is to other disciplines, using the example of the sweet potato. Sweet potato specimen collection has been going on since the 18th century. Specifically, there are specimens of sweet potato which Captain Cook found in the pacific in 1769. These suggest that Polynesians had already been to South America before this point, since this is where the delicious foodstuff originates from. Or maybe it came under the wing of a bird. Even Professor Scotland himself cannot tell us the answer definitively, but the answers may already be out there in the specimen cupboard, waiting for discovery. We see here how the specimens which are collected by botanists can actually provide us with information about anthropology, or human geography. Botany must not be overlooked!
The next series of lectures at the Botanic Garden starts on the 26th January at 8pm with a lecture by Mary Keen about Lord Rothschild's private garden.