Robert Scotland at Oxford is the last taxonomic botanist to be found in any UK university. Despite the world’s rapid loss of huge numbers of plant species, taxonomic botany gets so little funding that 70,000 plants remain undescribed and there’s an average of 35 years between discovery and proper classification. The plants have often been collected but are sitting in various herbaria around the world, waiting for a taxonomic botanist to get the time and the funding to describe them, and then compare them to already described species.
And it’s not just rare or ornamental plants that need systematic work done on them; an important commercial crop like sweet potato – genus Ipomoea – is yet to get a modern revision of its 3000 names and 800 species.
As there is no central catalogue of already described plants, and with insufficient resources going into systematic botany, it’s very difficult to make an accurate species description and then check through all the descriptions and names that might have been given to the same plant in different countries to then determine one single internationally agreed name. And that checking is also required to know whether a new plant is indeed a newly discovered species or something that’s already been described……..somewhere……
Source: Robyn Williams interviews Robert Scotland, Reader of botanical systematics at Oxford University, on ABC Radio’s The Science Show.