The Wide Expanse of the RSABG Research Portolio

Lucinda McDade
RSABG Interim Executive Director

This article appeared in the February 2013 Oak Notes, the newsletter for the RSABG volunteers

I recently returned from a week of fieldwork through the northwestern part of Windhoek, Namibia (country just northwest of South Africa; in fact, it was formerly part of South Africa but is now independent). It was quite warm there (humid, too)—an austral summer with lightning on the horizon.

I was looking for plants (mostly Acanthaceae, a few others) all day, sleeping in a tent and waking to the sound of birds—so no complaints! I think I forgot to mention seeing herds of springbok, the occasional oryx, giraffe, baboons and vervet monkeys (but I mostly focused on plants—I promise!).

I had intended to write about the great work underway in the communities for this month’s Oak Notes piece but my work in Namibia makes me realize that I should save “Gateway to the Communities” for next month (when it will be closer to ready for you to visit) and talk a bit about the research portfolio at Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden, which is a long way of saying that I should explain why I was in Namibia for research.

All of you know well that RSABG is the largest botanic garden dedicated to the remarkable plants of California. This is what sets us apart and makes us entirely different from other gardens: we collect, display, preserve, conserve and advance knowledge regarding the native plants of California. Faithful volunteers: review last month’s column if you think this is a limited portfolio: it most assuredly is not.

In this context, why were postdoc Erin Tripp and I in Africa conducting research, as other RSABG research scientists likewise have done in the last year? That is, why does our research reach extend beyond California native plants whereas our horticulture and conservation programs do not?

As I see it, there are two kinds of explanations for this. The first is a scientific one. A major focus of the RSABG Research Department is to understand the evolutionary sources of the flora of California. To use a human metaphor for this research objective, we do very much the same when we ask about the family genealogies of people who now live in California. For the vast majority of us, this means including people who have lived or do live outside of the state—often far outside the state. Tracing the stories of those people helps you to understand how you turned up here. Similarly, many of California native plants have relatives elsewhere on Earth and understanding how California plants are related to plants elsewhere clarifies how California flora was assembled.

In this context, I like to give the example of the silverswords of Hawaii. (If you are not familiar with these spectacular plants, just do an internet search for silverswords and Hawaii). Based geological history data, we understand the Hawaiian Islands to be mostly less than 10 million years old. This means that the plants that occur there now, came from somewhere else and fairly recently. It turns out that the closest living relative of the Hawaiian silverswords is a common California tarweed in the sunflower family (some are growing in front of the seed house and likely also in Fay’s Wildflower Meadow). What does this mean? It means that in the last several million years, at least one tarweed seed dispersed from the mainland of North America to Hawaii and there set off the remarkable species radiation that is the Hawaiian silverswords today. As humans, part of our mission as a sapient species is to understand the rest of life on Earth: this piece of knowledge, I would argue, greatly advances that mission.

The second reason that the research reach of RSABG extends beyond the flora of California is related to the mission of the entire organization. My understanding is that when RSABG moved from Orange County to our present site, a major part of the reason was to affiliate with The Claremont Colleges and thus to develop a strong research and academic profile for the organization. In the academic model of science, the focus of research is rarely limited in scope; instead, researchers are challenged to take on the most exciting problems and issues within their disciplines and to advance knowledge in these areas. By the way, this is not true just of science but rather extends to scholarly research in general. For example, my two closest colleagues at Claremont Graduate University (beyond botany!) study early English literature and archaeology of the Middle East.

An important goal and also result of following this model in research is that we have a national and international profile in research and graduate education which we would not have if we were limited to research on California plants. To put a pecuniary polish on this last: we would not have 10 of the 11 grants from the U.S. National Science Foundation that we have at present were we limited to research on California plants. That simply is not how modern research that can compete for external funding works.

Are you curious about the grant that is limited to California plants? It is the five-year grant that we have to advance the work on digitizing RSABG specimens of California plants which is part of the overall project of the Consortium of California Herbaria (ucjeps.berkeley.edu/consortium/). Digitizing involves databasing plant descriptions and georeferencing locations (e.g., turning location labels such as Icehouse Canyon, Mt. Baldy, Angeles National Forest into latitude and longitude that can then be readily mapped by computer assisted methods). In truth, we were able to make the argument for that project as scientifically valid only because most of California is a scientifically valid floristic entity almost unto itself: the California Floristic Province, characterized by the strange Mediterranean climate that I wrote about last month. As such, it is sort of the exception that proves the rule that when we seek external funding, we must justify our projects in a scientific context.

I hope that this will help you understand, and explain to others (we are all ambassadors for the Garden), how research works at RSABG. It is my hope that just as we all share in our achievements in collecting, displaying and conserving the native plants of California; we can all take pride in our research achievements that extend beyond our state to advance knowledge of plants on Earth.