The NEED for field botanists

I recently came across a web-site of a consultant bryologist (mosses and liverworts) in the UK who stated, "...surveys are highly specialised and need to be undertaken an by experienced field bryologist". I certainly agree with this but much the same applies to flowering plants as well.  For too long in the UK (and no doubt other European countries and North American) it has been assumed that ANY 'biology' graduate would automatically have the necessary skills to undertake plant surveys to a reasonable standard.  This is NOT the case.  Even when I was at University in the 1970s there was almost no traditional 'botanical' content within Biology degrees.  Nowadays there is minimal 'plant' content in 'A' level biology courses and I can speak from first-hand experience as I began, some years ago (but did not complete), a Post Graduate Certificate in Education course with the Open University with a view to teaching Science at Secondary Level, as a Biology Specialist).  Certainly little or nothing was taught at that time that would prepare biology or even botany graduates to identify and survey for British wild flowers.   The situation has got much worse, as there are no BOTANY degrees at British universities anymore!

*On re-joining what has now become the BOTANICAL SOCIETY OF BRITAIN & IRELAND, I was pleased to notice in BSBI News of April 2015 an article entitled, 'Save field biology skills from extinction' - so I am not alone in being aware of this serious problem. 

The plant identification and field-skills I developed in the late 1970s had little to do with me studying for a biology degree. There is an assumption that all botany revolves around identifying plants but there are plenty of bright and able botanists who know almost zero about this aspect of botany and even amongst botanical taxonomists, say working in an Institution, they may well be very expert and senior in their narrow 'specialism' of say a particular plant family or genus but have minimal general field skills/expertise. TRADITIONALLY PLANT IDENTIFICATION IS BASED UPON EXAMINATION OF CHARACTERISTICS WHICH CAN BE OBSERVED ON DRIED, PRESSED SPECIMENS IN HERBARIA.  WHILST THIS IS THE 'BEST' THAT WAS POSSIBLE IN THE PAST AND I CONTINUE TO BE IMPRESSED WITH THE SKILLS OF SUCH LUMINARIES AS J.D.HOOKER, WHO COMPILED (WITH THE HELP OF OTHER SPECIALISTS) THE 'FLORA OF BRITISH INDIA' (WHICH IS STILL THE STANDARD, ALBEIT OUT-OF-DATE, IN MANY CASES ONLY, REFERENCE WORK FOR INDIAN BOTANISTS).  IN THE 19TH CENTURY HOOKER AND HIS COLLABORATORS HAD MINIMAL MATERIAL, OFTEN JUST SCRAPS, POORLY DRIED AND INADEQUATELY PRESSED, WITH HARDLY ANY OR NO FIELD NOTES, TO 'WORK' INTO A FLORA - THEY DID A REMARKABLE JOB IN THE CIRCUMSTANCES.

I feel OBLIGED, after many  expeditions, spread over a period of 35 years, along the Himalaya, to comment that the standard of field botany in India needs to improve. My intention is not to be unkind, let alone cruel nor appear superior (mindful how much easier it is to be a botanist in the UK) but to DRAW ATTENTION TO AN URGENT NEED TO 'GRASP THIS NETTLE'.  I have tried, for decades, but have made no progress. IF a world authority on Himalayan flora volunteered to help me in the past, I would have JUMPED at the chance!

This situation begins with insufficient plant identification training towards the M.Sc. which students in Botany appear to automatically study for in India (rather than a B.Sc. in the UK) - please note that I have already indicated that the situation in the UK is unsatisfactory as well! The plant identification training includes gathering a small number of herbarium specimens.  As far as I can tell, for most students this involves no more effort than picking up a few leaves which have dropped from trees in local parks!  Then, the specimens are identified for them!  This barely constitutes GCSE standard in the UK (and these exams are taken aged 16)....  By that age I was taking a serious interest in plant identification and completed a project comparing the flora of three different habitats, undertaking the naming of plants myself.

An example of a good sheet of specimens of GENTIANA KURROO collected in Kashmir back in 1898 by an AMATEUR (a plant enthusiast with no specific botanical training) - it is of a FAR SUPERIOR quality compared to most specimens in India herbaria these days!  The purpose is to fill a herbarium sheet, so when individual specimens of the species being collected are small, several should be gathered.  Almost always only a single (at best 2 or 3) often inadequate specimens  are collected by Indian botanists on the RARE occasions they actually venture into the countryside.  I visited one herbarium in the Indian Himalaya in 2012, yet the slopes of hills within site of the university (within site of the campus) had barely been surveyed.

Since plant classification (taxonomy) and identification is based upon the characteristics of species which can be observed on dried herbarium specimens, if these specimens are of poor quality it means they are of little use to even the best plant taxonomists. And virtually impossible for visiting botanists with fresh specimens to reliably identify them!  Add to this a reluctance, fuelled by government restrictions, to collaborate internationally, standards remain low.  Plant identification is a bit like detective work - the more clues, the more reliable the conclusions drawn.

A SINGLE sheet containing no less than 15 specimens of a miniature SENECIO (with a habit similar to many SAUSSURREA) collected in SE Tibet - dried, pressed and mounted in a leading herbarium.  The objective for a collector is to FILL a herbarium sheet, so when one comes across small species, especially at high altitude, one should gather several specimens (at least) to show the variation within the population of the plant one is sampling; care should be taken when it is plant species being collected is larger, allowing just a single specimen, that this is not an ATYPICAL example (the eye naturally tends to notice something that is 'different' but may be unrepresentative) of the population of it. I HAVE NEVER SEEN ANYTHING REMOTELY APPROACHING THIS STANDARD OF COLLECTING BY AN INDIAN BOTANIST - AND IT IS NOT AS IF THEY WOULD HAVE TO PHYSICALLY DO THE WORK THEMSELVES, AS THEY USUALLY HAVE A FIELD ASSISTED TO GATHER SPECIMENS FOR THEM!

Another single sheet, this time with 8 specimens of a CREMANTHODIUM (collected by Kingdon Ward on the border of Burma and Tibet, in a leading UK herbarium. If this species had been collected by an Indian botanist, there would almost certainly only be a single specimen!  In the days before digital photography and travel between continents was a major undertaking, time and cost-wise, Dr R R Stewart recommended that any serious botanical expedition, should consider (if the size of the colony of plant being sampled was sufficient to allow) some 10 duplicate sets/sheets of specimens (not 10 specimens) should be gathered for sending to ALL the leading herbaria around the world.  It was not a lot of use to many of the world's botanists if the specimens  they needed to consult were only at Kew or the New York Botanical Garden.  Nowadays, in a more conservation-minded age, we would baulk at the RECOMMENDATION of such large scale removal of plant material (especially as specimens of smaller species should include the roots), nevertheless, at least 2-3 duplicate sets should still be gathered as it is essential to deposit one set of specimens in the country being visited by say a British or American expedition, in addition to a set for a top herbarium in Britain or America plus the herbarium of the Institute where the collecting team were from.  This was the case for the University of Southampton expeditions to Ladakh in the early 1980s - with duplicate sets of specimens being deposited at the Natural History Museum, Kew and one in Ladakh.

For a comparison with typical specimens found in India herbaria, see a sheet of GENTIANA  KURROO on the following web-site:

Please note the specimen illustrated is better than most; it has not been selected because it is a particularly poor example!  Yes, there are some good specimens in Indian herbaria but they, sadly, are very much the exception, rather than the rule.

For other examples see:  EREMURUS



And these are NOT the worst examples.  It would be IMPOSSIBLE for ME to name plants satisfactorily if such specimens were my ONLY source of reference (along with the 'Flora of British India' - which dates back to the 19th Century plus more recent local 'floras' full of misidentified species.....)  I am not saying EVERY specimen in this particular herbarium is poor.  Quite a number are satisfactory but even when the specimens are not bad, the accompanying notes could be greatly improved upon.  They seem to reproduce descriptions of the species they THINK it is, from a publication, rather than from the actual specimens itself.

I know of one lady in India who prepared a proper herbarium, aided by her skilled father, for her M.Sc. in Botany (just as her father had got the prize for the best herbarium on a Forest Rangers course decades earlier).  She regularly carried a plant press around with her during her student days(no doubt to the amusement of her fellow students) and actually went up into the mountains to collect in the wild.  But she was the only one who did so  in her year- and this was more than 50 years ago. The situation has not improved since- which is reflected in he awful state of most herbarium specimens collected in India since Independence.  They are often scrappy, poorly dried, inadequately pressed with almost no accompanying field notes...... IT IS JUST NOT GOOD ENOUGH AND DOES GREAT DISERVICE TO INDIAN BOTANY AND RELATED SCIENCES, WHICH RELY UPON THE SERVICES FIELD BOTANISTS AND HERBARIA ARE MEANT TO PROVIDE.

Field Notes

From what I have observed at herbaria in India, an area of particular weakness, in addition the poor quality of the actual specimens collected, is the almost non-existent field notes.  One is lucky to find even a location given (and often it is difficult to find where the place name provided actually is).  I am reproducing below a blank sheet from a Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh (UK) FIELD NOTE-BOOK, the exterior of the book and a completed example:

Although not specifically on the above sheet, an indication of abundance, is useful - to support (or otherwise) the frequently encountered claims in articles published about plants in the Indian Himalaya that certain species are 'Rare and Endangered'.

Inside the note-book are reminders to collectors to:

#    Collect complete, representative specimens of flowers and fruit (when available) and to include underground parts (I have seldom seen roots on specimens in Indian herbaria)

#    Put specimens in press at time of collection and dry quickly

#    Indicate habitat and locality precisely, the latter in relation to some easily located geographical feature e.g. a large town and/or give co-ordinates (I often have difficulty finding the places given on labels in Indian herbaria)

#    Make full descriptive notes at the time of collection of features to be lost or obscured in the collecting and drying process e.g. size of plant if only a small part of it is collected/can feet into a plant press/ultimately onto a herbarium sheet, flower colour, etc.  The latter is particularly importantly as the colour when fresh is often different to when dried

#    Number collections in a single consecutive series and cross reference to ancillary collections e.g. of photographs

#    Write carefully and clearly and do not use obscure abbreviations (my hand-writing has always been poor, so I use CAPITALS)

  Perhaps what is actually 'RARE and CRTICALLY ENDANGERED' in the Himalaya are good field botanists and quality pressed specimens in herbaria!