New Life for Plant Records at the Society
The Garden in the Woods is actually a museum -- a living museum of native plants, accredited by the American Association of Museums. Like all museums, we need to keep track of our valuable collections.
New Life for Plant Records at the Society
Did you know that Garden in the Woods is a museum as well as a garden? That’s right, New England Wild Flower Society’s Garden in the Woods is a living museum collection of native plants, accredited by the American Association of Museums. Like all museums, we need to keep track of our acquisitions, the treasures that make up our collections. That’s where Plant Records comes in. Under the heading of collections curation, Plant Records is a division within the Society’s Horticulture Department, where the informational aspects of our gardens are managed. At Garden in the Woods, we have over 75 years of garden history to track, over 1,500 taxa, or types of plants, and over 8,000 plant names in use in 24 garden areas.
Like any museum, we need to know at minimum three things about any item in our collection: provenance, location, and condition. Source records document that a given plant was responsibly wild collected, when and by whom, or that a given plant was garden grown, known as provenance. Location records identify where in our 15-plus acres of gardens a given plant is located. We also track the condition of the plant from year to year. With hundreds of plants going into the ground each year in two dozen individual gardens, a system is needed to track what plants went where. The database also helps us track changes in nomenclature, cultural needs, bloom patterns, plant systematics information, distribution in the wild, collections within specific gardens, and more.
Last year, members of the Horticulture Department drafted and received a grant from the Stanley Smith Horticultural Trust for the purchase and installation of a newly-revised database. SusanA Litowitz and the Litowitz Foundation generously came forward to match funds in order to staff Plant Records with an intern who would be responsible for helping to apply the capabilities of this amazing tool. Using this database, the Plant Records Coordinator, the Plant Records Intern and a few wonderfully dedicated volunteers have been able to look into the secrets of our 14,000+ historical ‘accessions-‘ plants entered into our collections. The database is a complex device with a vast array of capabilities. The hitch is that it takes a great deal of learning, research discipline, and patience to unlock the searching, sorting, and reporting abilities to their best effect.
As an organization devoted to conservation of rare plants, we must be sure to correctly identify each plant in our collections. Our collections of native plants are used for education, seed collection and propagation, and to study the cultural needs and life cycles of each species. This information is applied to promote native plants through horticulture, their appreciation by the public, and thus their conservation in the end. Tracking our collections plays a vital role in keeping the identity of our plants accurate.
By compiling records of plants cultivated in our gardens over many years, and comparing these records to differences in cultural conditions, much can be learned about the secret lives of plants. The patterns of health, or lack of health, may not be revealed over the space of a few years to a horticulturist working in one area of the gardens. However, by examining the life patterns of a species in several locations within our gardens over a number of decades, the likes and dislikes of the plant may become dramatically apparent. Data on aspects of plant life such as bloom patterns are also maintained within Plant Records. By this means, we are collecting information about the bloom time of many species within our collections as part of an effort to study the effects of climate change on bloom patterns (phenology). This year, Volunteer Debby Hellmold diligently collected data across the entire growing season on the bloom times of almost 400 varieties of plants. Plant Records Intern Amanda Willis wrestled tirelessly with this body of information to develop a system for accurately tracking bloom patterns and for eliminating questionable data. This information is being collected as part of our participation in a regional consortium of botanic gardens to track the effects of climate change on phenology.
As well, New England Wild Flower Society has been invited to participate in the North American Plant Collections Consortium. In order to prepare for the role of Steward on a national level for our significant collections of members of the Aster family, the genus Actaea (cohoshes and bugbanes), and the genus Rhododendron, we must maintain accurate data regarding the individuals we hold. By participating in this consortium, the New England Wild Flower Society will bring a heavier native plant presence to this effort to create a body of managed specimen collections representing flora worldwide.
Volunteer Fran Portante took on the bulk of our Plant Log and Accessions data entry. This is no easy task, following on the heels of one of the busiest planting years in the garden’s long history, including our new Idea Garden, which alone contains hundreds of individual plants representing a couple of dozen taxa. Fran also assisted in the inventory and mapping of this somewhat complex installation. Plant Records Intern Amanda Willis took on several enormous tasks to bring historical data current, ensure that current data are accurate, and to ensure the uniform application of our record keeping methods. Amanda’s efforts have helped the promulgation of a revised plant records policy, which is currently being drafted, and she composed an in-house database manual to help future plant records staff penetrate the mysteries of our database.
In a world of ever-changing plant names (taxonomy, nomenclature) and reordering of plant families (systematics), there is a tangle of common names, old names (synonyms, in part), and accepted names. Our database enabled us to reorder and apply a ranked system of taxonomic references to our extensive list of plant names (Flora of New England, Flora of North America, Synthesis of North American Flora, and Jepson Manual of the Flora of California, International Association of Plant Taxonomy). Thus, we are able to cite the correct and current scientific name of our many native plants, while still being able to call up old names and synonyms for educational use and comparison with other gardens and other sources. With several thousand names to tackle accurately, this process will take some months to complete.
Maintaining currency is difficult, but necessary. As a conservation organization, the process of speciation is a major concern that needs to be protected from disruption. As it happens, botanists have recently reorganized a great many species, largely due to differences that have come to light as part of genetic mapping efforts, as well as other criteria. Many species have been broken out into two or more subspecies or varieties. Why should we care? Because one variety or subspecies of a plant may be perfectly secure in the wild while another is quite threatened. Knowing which is which and where they grow is the first step in their preservation. In the garden, seed from species which are of especial conservation concern are often restricted in collection or sale. It is important that vulnerable wild populations not be genetically contaminated by cross-pollination with plants that are not of the same population. Planting a rare plant in a garden or landscape close enough to a wild rare plant for cross-pollination to occur can reverse thousands of years of speciation. In the case of animals, the crossing of the endangered southern red wolf with domestic animals has left a cloud of doubt about the genetic identity of remaining animals.
Plant Records can do more than cough up information. This is a means by which we can ‘curate’ our living collections. Curation is the planned management of a collection. This process allows us to see the forest despite the many trees. We can use the database and Plant Records as a whole to reveal concerns such as plants of interest we may lack, the balance of wild-collected and garden-grown material we wish to present, the proportion of native plants to non-native plants on display, the proportion of selected cultivars to ‘straight species’ we use, and more.
In the future, we hope to make a read-only version of our database available to visitors. This would allow visitors to find the location of a specific plant they wish to see in our many gardens, view the cultural history of the plant, view its native distribution in the wild, and find out when to see it in bloom, plus more.