A plant taxonomist’s work is never done. Just ask Alan Weakley, director of the UNC Herbarium (a department of the N.C. Botanical Garden), which houses 800,000 dried plant specimens.
For the past 25 years, Weakley has been writing “The Flora of the Southern and Mid-Atlantic States,” an ever-growing book that now describes 7,000 plant species. Every couple of years, he prints out and binds the most recent draft. “We do plan to publish it more formally,” Weakley said, “but it’s hard to say, ‘I’m going to stop right here and publish it as is,’ because there’s always a new species that needs to get named that you want to have in it.” (He hopes to have it published by 2017; in the meantime, the most recent draft is available online for download ( http://herbarium.unc.edu/flora.htm), and in a few months, the information will be available as an app called FloraQuest.)
In North Carolina, two or three new plant species are described and given scientific names each year. Some are recent discoveries, while others have been known for decades, but were misidentified, misunderstood or simply unnamed.
The process for presenting the new species to the scientific community is rigorous and lengthy. Among other things, scientists must collect convincing evidence that the new species does not hybridize or interbreed with other species – a task that can take several years. Scientists also must make sure the plant is not an exotic interloper. Weakley said a recently described new species in Florida turned out to be an unintended import from Brazil. “Before naming a new species, you need to be able to eliminate all other possibilities,” he said.
Weakley has had a hand in describing many new species and in choosing the names for several – including one he named after his daughter.
Naming species is fun. But, Weakley said, “The goal is not to name new species. The goal is to accurately figure out the taxonomy of the plants of our area, to understand their relationship to their habitat and to understand how to conserve them if they are rare.”