In the winter of plant taxonomy

Gerry Moore, director of science at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, has been watching the plants of the New York metropolitan move and change over the past 30 years

March 10, 2011

It’s winter at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. The bright autumn colors have faded to browns and grays, and staff members are clearing leaf litter from sidewalks and footpaths. For Gerry Moore, the garden’s science director, it’s time to reflect on what he has accomplished over the past year. That means going through the stack of about 600 pressed and dried plant specimens he gathered from parts of Connecticut, New Jersey and New York State.

Every field season, which runs from April to October, Moore and his team collect, identify and store specimens of every plant species they find in the region. They find a new non-native plant every year, Moore said. This past year’s newcomer is Murdannia keisak, or the marsh dayflower, a weedy water plant from Asia that crowds out native vegetation. It’s highly invasive in the southern United States, but before now it had never been seen north of Delaware. Moore found it growing in New Jersey. He alerted the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection — which will monitor the patch and look out for new populations — and he plans to publish a report on Murdannia’s creep northwards.

For the past 20 years, Moore and other Brooklyn Botanic Garden scientists have been documenting the plants growing within a 50-mile radius around New York City, as a part of the New York Metropolitan Flora Project. In April, the garden announced the project’s findings: 50 native plant species have gone almost or totally extinct, and about a third of the area’s plants are non-native. Their results echo previous, smaller studies, such as a survey published in 2007 in the Journal of the Torrey Botanical Society that found Central Park has lost almost 70 percent of its native plants — 178 different species — since 1910.

The Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s detailed mapping is important for conservation efforts, said Stan Shetler, an emeritus botany curator at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. “You can’t protect anything . . . if you don’t know what you have,” he said. The Smithsonian supports the D.C. Flora Checklist, a study similar to the New York Metropolitan Flora Project. But it’s not as extensive as New York’s because its staff is smaller and has less funding, Shetler said. “[Moore’s] got a much more ambitious project, which is better . . . and really deserves support.”

But it’s a project that depends on a dwindling expertise: taxonomy, or the identification and naming of living things. In the 1700s and 1800s, taxonomy was a thriving hobby for wealthy European gentlemen; Charles Darwin, for example, was an avid collector of beetles. In fact, the Metropolitan Flora Project uses these older records to compare what grows in New York now with what grew in Colonial times, when New Yorkers didn’t have such an intense impact on the land.

By the time Moore, 44, started gathering and identifying plants in rural southern New Jersey as a middle schooler, taxonomy wasn’t exactly a popular pastime anymore. He sometimes went out collecting with friends, but more often, he went alone. “I am not sure why, but it was always fun as a kid to collect things, be they stamps, baseball cards, or plants,” he said. He kept on collecting through high school; then through college, when a museum — the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences — first accepted his plant samples in its archives; and through graduate school, when he earned his doctorate in plant taxonomy from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. He came to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden in 2000. “I’m a lifelong resident of the area. I liked the idea of working with the flora I grew up with.”

As a professional taxonomist, Moore is one of a rare strain. In recent years, universities have turned their funding and attention away from traditional life sciences like plant taxonomy. Instead, they’re funneling their resources into newer molecular biology departments, said John Kress, Smithsonian’s current curator of botany. As taxonomy departments shrink, so do the number of professionals they train. “There are fewer and fewer people that understand how to identify plants and how to classify them,” said Kress, who has collaborated with Moore. “He is an expert.”

Taxonomy is a “dying art,” concurs one of Moore’s Brooklyn Botanic colleagues, Steven Glenn. That makes Moore’s job harder. “When we get things that are unknown, it’s harder to get them identified because there’s a lack of people doing this,” said Moore. Brooklyn Botanic Garden scientists sometimes need to consult botanists in other countries, especially for non-native species that come from overseas. “We’re backed up all the time,” Moore added, gesturing to piles of newspaper-sheathed plants covering long conference tables in the middle of the room.

The work piles up in spite of how quickly Moore’s decades-long experience allows him to identify his dry, rustling stacks of unnamed specimens. He gives his plants just a moment’s glance before scribbling a genus and species name onto their newsprint wrappings. After he finishes, a technician will mount them on sheets of creamy-white, acid-free paper and store them in climate-controlled cabinets as a part of a collection that stretches back more than 100 years.
The lack of professional taxonomists slows down urgent work, said Kress. “If everything were stable in the world, we could just take our time,” he said. With the planet losing species rapidly under human influence, however, scientists are racing to describe that biodiversity before it disappears.

Even the plants in Moore’s hometown have changed since he began reading Audubon field guides as a young teen in the 1980s. A jet-set modern world means jet-set seeds, he said; with modern travel, people can only expect the high influx of non-native plants into their homelands to continue.

At least Moore’s not going anywhere — he says he plans to stay in botany and stay in the Tri-State area, where he’ll continue to watch the plants around him change with the seasons and years.

About the Author

Francie Diep

Francie Diep holds her B.A. in English from the University of California, Los Angeles, where she took as many science classes as she could in between her major requirements. After graduating, she worked as a TA for biochemistry and functional genomics labs at UCLA. After three years at the bench and chalkboard, she is eager to put her writing skills back to work reporting science stories.


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