World’s plants collated in one huge database

By AAP + S. Varnham O'Regan 26 April 2012
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An ambitious project aims to catalogue the world’s entire plant species by 2020.

THE WORLD’S PLANT SPECIES will be collated in one database in a project that can be described as no easy feat.

Four of the world’s leading botanical institutions are compiling a catalogue of every plant on the globe – at least 400,000 species – to be made available online by 2020.
The St Louis-based Missouri Botanical Garden and New York Botanical Garden in the United States have joined forces with the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in the United Kingdom to produce the World Flora catalogue.

Judy West, executive director of Australian National Botanic Gardens in Canberra, says Australia will be a “major contributor” to the project. “There’s about 20,000 species in Australia which is a significant portion of the world’s flora,” she says.

Inventory of Australian plants

The Australian National Botanic Gardens, in conjunction with Australian Biological Resources Study and Atlas of Living Australia, is currently working on an online inventory of Australia’s plants, which they hope to complete in the next five years. The complete inventory will be supplied to organisers of the catalogue.

World Flora will have a comprehensive run-down of every known plant species, including images and scientific information. New information will be added as it is discovered, made possible by the catalogue’s electronic format.

Experts from the botanical institutions involved say they hope it will help stop the loss of plant biodiversity around the world.

“Botanic gardens have led the way in spearheading international conservation strategies and programs, and are a natural partnership for mobilising much needed information on plant biodiversity,” Professor Stephen Blackmore, Regius Keeper of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, said in a statement on Monday.

Importance of knowing our plants

One of the biggest challenges organisers face is finding the resources to collate all the information in developing countries such as Papua New Guinea. But if they are successful, the result will be invaluable, Judy says.

 “On a world scale, whether for economic or biosecurity purposes, it’s an enormous step forward,” she says.

“As people become more interested in climate change and the environment, there’s greater demand from government agencies and NGOs for information about the world’s plant species.”

It is estimated that at least 100,000 plant species around the world are threatened by extinction.