Several plant super-families such as the legumes (family Fabaceae/ Leguminosae), grasses (Poaceae) and orchids (Orchidaceae) (pictured) have yet to be completely monographed despite their importance for food, fodder, medicine, and horticulture.

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Scientists call for urgent efforts to accelerate in-depth studies of plant groups, especially in tropical, biodiversity-rich countries

A new paper, published today in the journal Trends in Plant Science, takes a critical look at the 300 year old tradition of botanical monography to determine its role and relevance in addressing some of the challenges arising from the current environmental crisis. 

A botanical monograph is a publication that focuses on a plant group, bringing together all known information about those plants, compiled by an expert. The information comes from observing plants in habitat, specimens in botanical gardens and herbaria, and looking at the tree of life and various other attributes of the plant group.

Unprecedented changes in earth’s biodiversity/ biosphere are prompting urgent efforts to describe and conserve plant diversity and scientists argue monographs can help. Plant groups with an up-to-date monograph provide a robust baseline for deeper study, accurate conservation status assessment and conservation actions that can help to protect plants that are increasingly disappearing. However, unfortunately, many important plant groups don’t have a monograph.

Dr Sandra Knapp, Merit Researcher at the Natural History Museum, who co-wrote the paper says;

“Plant diversity is the fabric of ecosystems – understanding their identities and evolutionary relationships is more important now than ever and can play a significant part in conserving the diversity of our planet.  Saving our planet begins with knowledge, understanding and appreciation of the other forms of life we share it with, including plants. Tragically these are disappearing at an alarming rate of knots, and unless we act now to accelerate our understanding, we risk losing many species, along with the irreplaceable knowledge they contain.”

Along with Dr Knapp, the authors of the paper, made up of an international team led by Dr Olwen Grace from RBG Kew, propose a criteria to prioritise efforts to monograph all the Earth’s plant groups, with particular urgency for tropical plant groups under imminent threat or with expected socio-economic benefits. The scientists say this acceleration in completion of monographs, especially for these groups, would address the persistent imbalance of knowledge and resource in biodiverse low-income regions, and putting historic northern hemisphere collections, such as those at RBG Kew, to better use.

Monographs are not just ‘by experts for experts’: they are used by anyone who needs definitive, authoritative information about a plant group – conservationists, horticulturists, researchers and local communities around the world. Monographs catalyse species discovery, biodiversity documentation and conservation, and help to understand what wild plants are related to the crops we depend on. With 40% of plants estimated as being threatened with extinction (Kew’s 2020 State of the World’s Plants & Fungi report), the authors say monographs have never been so crucial.

Monographs are uniquely challenging to compile because they bring together so many facets of information, including novel data, maps and illustrations that can be produced only by an expert of the plant group in question. Until the latter part of the 20th century, compiling a monograph would be a life’s work. Today, the internet, digital technologies and rapid advances in DNA sequencing for

the tree of life mean that monographs are now, realistically, within reach even for the most complex, diverse and challenging subjects – like orchids, legumes and grasses – which occur across the globe.

Dr Olwen Grace, Senior Researcher in the Monography department at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and lead author of the paper says: “The increased availability of DNA sequence data and digitised resources now provide powerful resources for a new phase of collaborative efforts in monography, focused on tackling the largest, most threatened, ecologically important, and economically valuable plant groups in an efficient manner. I am convinced that this centuries-old tradition is more relevant than ever to help take care of the Earth’s biodiversity.”


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About the Natural History Museum 

The Natural History Museum is both a world-leading science research centre and the most visited natural history museum in Europe. With a vision of a future in which both people and the planet thrive, it is uniquely positioned to be a powerful champion for balancing humanity’s needs with those of the natural world.  

It is custodian of one of the world’s most important scientific collections comprising over 80 million specimens. The scale of this collection enables researchers from all over the world to document how species have and continue to respond to environmental changes - which is vital in helping predict what might happen in the future and informing future policies and plans to help the planet.  

The Museum’s 300 scientists continue to represent one of the largest groups in the world studying and enabling research into every aspect of the natural world. Their science is contributing critical data to help the global fight to save the future of the planet from the major threats of climate change and biodiversity loss through to finding solutions such as the sustainable extraction of natural resources. 

The Museum uses its enormous global reach and influence to meet its mission to create advocates for the planet - to inform, inspire and empower everyone to make a difference for nature. We welcome over five million visitors each year, our digital output reaches hundreds of thousands of people in over

200 countries each month and our touring exhibitions have been seen by around 30 million people in the last 10 years.