Searching for the Plant Families

Scientists have been conducting research at the Garden since 1930. Today, discoveries in the critical fields of plant systematics and evolution are forging ahead with support from the NSF, other research grants and private contributions from RSABG donors.

by Laura Tiffany

Scientists have been conducting research at the Garden since 1930. Today, discoveries in the critical fields of plant systematics and evolution are forging ahead with support from the NSF, other research grants and private contributions from RSABG donors.

While Garden visitors may marvel at the enormous variety of native California plants, from the California buckeye with its silvery trunk and sweet pale flowers to the red-barked manzanita, researchers are performing cutting-edge botanical work behind the scenes that is widening the recognized knowledge of plants in California and the world.

According to Lucinda McDade, Judith B. Friend Director of Research and professor and chair of the Claremont Graduate University Botany Department, the Research Department at RSABG endeavors “to discover new knowledge about plant life on Earth and to communicate this knowledge to other scientists and the public. Just as human genealogies often link a family to relatives across the globe, the same is true of plant genealogies. For example, a common California tarweed (member of the sunflower family) is the closest relative of the iconic Hawaiian silverswords.”

 The Research Department is an integral part of an international scientific community that develops the frameworks for plant conservation and biodiversity preservation.

International, national and regional scientists, conservationists and other organizations working to restore native plants depend on the kind of research RSABG scientists are pioneering everyday at the Garden.

Currently, RSABG is abuzz with research projects, including 10 funded by the National Science Foundation—a laudable accomplishment for a department of five faculty members.

Lucinda McDade is a principle investigator on four NSF grants, including two related to collections at RSABG: curating the plant specimens of Robert F. Thorne, CGU professor of botany emeritus and RSABG curator and taxonomist emeritus, and a collaborative proposal that seeks to understand and identify biodiversity hotspots in peril by digitizing the holdings of herbaria says McDade. Read more about McDade's research.

J. Travis Columbus, CGU professor of botany and RSABG research scientist, has studied Chloridoid grasses (a grass family made up of mostly wild and undomesticated species) since his graduate school days at the University of California, Berkeley.

His current project is striving to improve scientific knowledge of the diversification of the Chloridoid grass lineage with a focus on the varied inflorescence (how flowers are arranged on a plant).

While the inflorescence development research is just getting started, headed by RSABG postdoctoral researcher Amanda Fisher and making heavy use of the large living collection of Chloridoid grasses in the Garden, the overall project has garnered successes already, including the discovery of several new species during Columbus’ fieldwork in southern Africa. Read more about Columbus' research

Four out of the five most noxious parasitic agricultural weeds lie within the Orobanchaceae (broomrape) family. And Jeffery Morawetz, The Fletcher Jones Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow for 2010-11, is studying three of these four, which appear in the tropical genera of the family.

These weeds cause the loss of billions of U.S. dollars in decreased crop yields or even full crop failure each year and are a major scourge for developing nations. Morawetz’s NSF project goal is to collect as many tropical parasitic species of Orobanchaceae as possible so his team can create a robust evolutionary framework to better resolve the relationships among species. Read more about Morawetz's research.

J. Mark Porter, associate professor of botany at CGU and RSABG research scientist, studies two little-known plant groups: Loeselia and Dayia. But even though they’re not well studied, they have been known since the time of Linnaeus and used by indigenous peoples as a treatment for gastrointestinal problems, to control fever and as an emetic.

Porter says that in addition to providing a thorough analysis of the biodiversity of the specific genera he is studying, he hopes “to raise the scientific profile and understanding of these little-known groups as they face renewed trade interest due to their ethnobotanical medicinal uses.” Read more about Porter's research.

For Erin Tripp, the act of looking into a microscope set her on a path that led to researching Ruellieae, another tribe within the Acanthaceae family. “There is an entire microcosm available to us under a microscope,” says Tripp, who is a postdoctoral fellow at RSABG and the co-principal investigator on a project with McDade. “One magnified look at insect wing patterning, or the complexity of floral structures, sold me for a lifetime.”

The goal for her project is to thoroughly sample representatives of Ruellieae’s 48 genera, a task that’s taken Tripp across the globe. Having an accurate estimate of the total number of species in this lineage, Tripp says, “provides us with the means to contribute to plant conservation efforts worldwide.” Read more about Tripp's research.

Carol Wilson, research associate professor of botany at CGU and research scientist at RSABG, studies a plant that may be familiar to many plant lovers and visitors to the Garden: the Iris (Iridaceae). Wilson is investigating relationships among the approximate 80 species of bearded Iris. Beards are a collection of hairs on the Iris sepal and serve to guide pollinating insects to pollen, nectar and shelter.

In addition, Wilson and a Republic of Georgia colleague are georeferencing field samples, determining associated climatic data and creating species distribution maps. As the project advances, Wilson and her research collaborator will work with a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) scientist to look at correlations between environment and morphological change. Read more about Wilson's research.