Department of Botany
The Department of Botany’s mission is to discover and describe plant life in marine and terrestrial environments, to interpret the evolutionary origin and processes responsible for this diversity, and to understand how humans are affected by and have altered plant diversity on the planet. The Department of Botany hosts events and activities throughout the year to explore and recognize achievements in the botanical community, including the Smithsonian Botanical Symposium.
Research in the Department of Botany focuses on plant systematics in the broadest sense: taxonomy, nomenclature, investigations in comparative anatomy and morphology, molecular systematics, phylogenetics, evolutionary genomics, diversification, phytogeography, cytology, ecology, evolutionary theory, and economic botany. Numerous floristic studies have been led by the Department (floras of the Hawaiian and Marquesas Islands, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, the Washington-Baltimore Area, as well as, Burma [Myanmar], the Guianas, the Caribbean, and Venezuela), while other research projects are aimed at elucidating phylogeny, evolutionary development, and broad questions of classification. Both modern and fossil species of many plant groups, including algae, mosses, ferns and flowering plants, are currently being studied.
The United States National Herbarium is the major facility in the Department. The Herbarium was established in 1848, dating back almost to the foundation of the Smithsonian Institution (1846). Collections of plants resulting from various early government expeditions were first deposited in the National Institute, named originally in 1840 as the National Institution for the Promotion of Science. Later these plants were turned over to the newly founded Smithsonian. Of particular interest among these were the large collections (50,000 specimens representing 10,000 species) from the U.S. South Pacific Exploring Expedition, under the command of Lt. Charles Wilkes, U.S.N., which formed the basis for the U.S. National Herbarium. The earliest expeditions sponsored in part by the Smithsonian included the explorations of Charles Wright in Texas and New Mexico in 1848.
The U.S. National Herbarium has 5 million specimens collected from worldwide locations. About 20% of these from select families, collectors and geographical areas are inventoried and have data available through an online searchable data-base. In addition, more than 200,000 high resolution digital images of specimens are accessible online. The oldest specimen in the collection is a member of the Scrophulariaceae that was collected sometime between 1584 and 1589. The majority of the Herbarium is arranged phylogenetically by family and genus, and within each genus according to geographic region and further alphabetically by species. The collection includes all major plant groups and is among the ten largest in the world, accounting for about 8% of the plant collection resources in the United States. Most of the specimens in the collection are standard mounted herbarium sheets, although several small collection subsets of fluid preserved specimens are available for some groups, as well as, bulky parts – typically large specimens stored in boxes or trays and microslide collections. The herbarium includes approximately 108,000 inventoried type specimens from all areas of the world but is richest in North American and New World tropical species, with additional strengths in the Pacific Islands, the Philippines, and the Indian subcontinent. The Department maintains extremely active loan and acquisition programs. Over 25,000 specimens are lent annually around the world. About 20,000 specimens are acquired annually, primarily through exchange and fieldwork.
The Herbarium maintains several important special collections including the DC Herbarium, featuring over 65,000 specimens from the Washington-Baltimore Area, including Plummers Island in the Potomac River. The Richard H. Eyde floral microslide collection includes over 21,500 serial sections representing 114 families of flowering plants, with special strengths in Cornaceae, Onagraceae, and Rubiaceae. Other important collection resources include the Wood Collection housed at the Museum Support Center (MSC), with over 42,500 specimens representing almost 3,000 genera with an additional 6,400 microslides of wood sections. The pollen and spore reference collection includes over 7,500 microslides representing a wide variety of plant families. The bamboo collection is especially diverse. In addition to over 37,000 inventoried herbarium specimens, the collection is supplemented with over 3,600 bulky specimens (including large culms, rhizomes, branch complements, and culm cross-sections); 3,000 fluid-stored specimens (mostly leaves); 1,300 floral dissection mounts; 250 dry fruit and seed specimens; 16,000 photographic slides; 600 black and white photo negatives; and 2,000 anatomical slides of bamboo serial sections, cross-sections, longitudinal sections and epidermal scrapes.
The Department is located within easy reach of many other important reference collections in the Washington area, including the Smithsonian Orchid Collection maintained in the Smithsonian Gardens Greenhouses, the National Arboretum, and the United States Botanic Garden, where large living collections of plant species and horticultural varieties are maintained.
Many of the plant groups represented in the U.S. National Herbarium rank among the finest and/or largest in the world. The flowering plant families of Acanthaceae, Asteraceae, Bromeliaceae, Gesneriaceae, Melastomataceae, and Poaceae have especially benefited from a long history of departmental specialist research and study. Active world-class research is also underway in the Araliaceae, Commelinaceae, Euphorbiaceae, Fabaceae, Malvaceae, Onagraceae, Sapindaceae, Vitaceae, Zingiberales and pteridophytes. Contact: Rusty Russell
The cryptogamic collections all rank as premier collections, totaling over three-quarters of a million specimens. The lichen herbarium is one of the largest and best curated collections in the world, containing over 250,000 specimens. The collection is especially rich in type material with 2,500 type specimens currently registered. The emphasis of the collection is North American lichens, especially the Parmeliaceae. The lichen collection also contains associated research materials, including: microscope slides; chemical extracts; chemical identification plates; and SEM photographs and negatives. The collection of bryophytes (250,000 specimens) and the ferns and fern allies (275,000 specimens) also rate as particularly significant, both in terms of size and scientific/historic value. Contact: Greg McKee
The Algal Collection of the U.S. National Herbarium is comprised of marine, estuarine, freshwater, terrestrial (including cave), and airborne algae. The collections of algae have increased dramatically over the past two decades and represent an important resource for the study of tropical and subtropical marine taxa. Numbering over 200,000 accessioned and inventoried specimens, it includes herbarium specimens (150,000), microslides (8,300), liquid preserved material (15,000), and bulky material (10,900). Among the collections are 4,700 type specimens. The collection recently acquired an additional 101,000 specimens, featuring crustose coralline algae. Also contained in this collection, but maintained at MSC, is the complete Francis Drouet collection (52,000 specimens) comprised mainly, but not exclusively, cyanobacteria. The non-articulated coralline algae (22,000), as well as a separate diatom collection (37,000) of freshwater and marine specimens of both recent and fossil origin are also housed at MSC. The collections include algae specimens from worldwide geographical regions, with major holdings from: Gulf of California, Pacific Mexico, southern and central California and the Channel Islands, the Galapagos Islands, Aldabra Atoll, and the Caribbean (especially Florida, Bahamas, Belize, and Panama). Contact: Barrett Brooks
National Fungus Collection
Mycological specimens are maintained separately with the National Fungus Collections a branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, located in Beltsville, Maryland. All the collection and publication information for types has been data-based.
Botanical Art and Image Collection
The Department maintains a Botanical Art Collection that serves to document the plant species discovered and described by Smithsonian botanists. The Collection includes over 5,500 works including 22 Margaret Mee paintings, 50 Frederick A. Walpole drawings and paintings, and 311 watercolors by M.E. Eaton from the four-volume work “The Cactaceae”, by Britton and Rose. Nearly 2,700 pen and ink drawings, 550 watercolors, and 150 other graphic media are also represented in the collection. The plant images library has over 21,000 photographic images of plant species and their habitats. Contact: Alice Tangerini
The Department has a microtechnique laboratory, equipped for anatomy and cytology, which is staffed and maintained for use by researchers and visiting scientists. The Department has a Digital Imaging Studio equipped with scanners and medium-format digital cameras for high-resolution imaging of specimens, especially type collections. The Department maintains a scientific illustration facility and full-time in-residence staff scientific illustrator. At MSC are departmental molecular laboratories (associated with but separate from the Laboratories of Analytical Biology) that allow modern studies using genetic markers and isozymes, including DNA barcoding surveys. A large modern greenhouse complex at MSC with over 7,000 sq. ft. of growing area houses a diversity of living research plants, including rich collections of Commelinaceae, Euphorbiaceae, Vitaceae, Zingiberales, and blooming corms of the titan arum, Amorphophallus titanum. The greenhouse facility is available for use by staff and associates in cultivating and studying research plants.
Throughout its history, the Department of Botany has maintained an active field research program in the American tropics but has also undertaken numerous collecting trips on the North American continent and in the Old World tropics. Currently the Department is actively engaged in a multinational effort to produce a flora of the Guianas region, which involves fieldwork and preparation of a written flora. The Department is an Editorial Center for the Flora of China Project. Other areas of concerted fieldwork include Mexico, the Andes, the Caribbean, Pacific Islands, East Africa (including Kenya), and across Asia. It is often possible to arrange to receive genetic resources, anatomical, cytological, or other materials from these expeditions.
Collaborative fieldwork can be arranged with a number of tropical institutions, such as the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama, the Organization for Tropical Studies in Costa Rica, and the National Tropical Botanical Garden in Hawaii. Research in marine botany, with emphasis on studies of systematics and functional morphology of selected plants, can be undertaken at the Smithsonian Marine Station at Fort Pierce, Florida, and through the Caribbean Coral Reef Ecosystems Program (CCRE) at Carrie Bow Cay, Belize.
The Smithsonian Contributions to Botany is an externally peer-reviewed periodical produced by the Department. The journal provides a vehicle for disseminating the results of the scientific research at the U.S. National Herbarium, such as longer taxonomic papers, checklists, floras, and monographs. The Index Nominum Genericorum, a listing of generic names in all plant groups, housed and produced in the Department, is corrected and updated on a continual basis. An inventory and online images of type specimens has been prepared under the auspices of the Type Specimen Register and serves as a convenient source of information concerning collection locality, bibliographic citation, and relevant field data. The Plant Conservation Unit generates and compiles data on endangered and threatened plant species and their habitats. It produces a monthly Biological Conservation Newsletter as well as other publications on plant conservation. The Plant Press, the quarterly newsletter from the Department of Botany and the U.S. National Herbarium, provides information about the activities of the Department including articles about staff research and travel, visitors, new publications, and plant conservation highlights.
Education and Outreach
Graduate studies are available in conjunction with local universities especially George Mason University, George Washington University, and the University of Maryland. Through cooperative arrangements with many universities, staff members act both formally and informally as advisors to graduate students and occasionally teach courses in plant systematics. Specimens are made available to students for thesis work through loans to their academic advisors. Students are also encouraged to visit the U.S. National Herbarium, to use the collections and facilities onsite, and to seek advice and help from Department staff members.
Since 2001, the Department has hosted the Smithsonian Botanical Symposium, which brings together the national and international plant systematics community to address a botanical topic of current significance. The presentation of the José Cuatrecasas Medal for Excellence in Tropical Botany, an honor bestowed on a botanist and scholar of international stature who has contributed significantly to advancing the field of tropical botany, takes place during the annual symposium.
The Botany Branch Library was established in the winter of 1965-1966 and in 2002 the Botany and Smithsonian Horticulture Libraries were combined into one unit housed in the Department. The combined library holdings total over 60,000 volumes and 300 journal subscriptions. The Botany Library includes one of the outstanding resources for the family Poaceae, the Hitchcock Chase Agrostological Library. The John A. Stevenson Mycological Library, probably the most complete collection of its kind in the United States, is housed with the National Fungus Collections in Beltsville, Maryland, but remains part of the Smithsonian library holdings. The Botany Library, including the John Donnell Smith Botanical Library and the E. Yale Dawson Phycological Library, is especially rich in original editions of classical botanical works. Much of the Department’s fine collection of rare books is now separately housed in the Cullman Library. The Botany Library also contains many archival materials including field books, field notes, and/or specimen lists made by Smithsonian botanists and colleagues who collected plant specimens for the U.S. National Herbarium. The Department also has large reprint collections, including the Richard H. Eyde collection rich in titles on plant anatomy and morphology.
The Horticulture Branch Library was established in 1984 as a research support resource for the Horticulture Services Division (now Smithsonian Gardens), which is responsible for the management of the gardens, grounds, greenhouses, and interior plantscaping at the Smithsonian. The Horticulture Library evolved from a small office collection that was begun in the early 1970s. Since that time, this collection has been enhanced by the donation of several large gifts. An acquisition in 1984 of more than 150 American titles on landscape design dating from the 19th- and early 20th-centuries became the foundation of a growing collection on the subject.
The Historia Plantarum Collection, the personal library of Alain Touwaide comprised of monographs, journals, and microfilms documenting the history of botany with a particular focus on Old World and medicinal plants, is currently housed in the Department. It represents an exemplary resource for understanding the history of botany and the transmission of plant knowledge from antiquity to the present time.
Programs and Partnerships
Biological Diversity of the Guiana Shield
The Biological Diversity of the Guiana Shield Program (BDG) is a field-oriented program initiated in 1983. The goal of the BDG is to study, document, and preserve the biological diversity of the Guiana Shield area of northeastern South America. Among BDG’s accomplishments is a feasibility study to determine the extent of existing plant and animal collections for use by the government of Guyana in establishing parks and reserves, as well as lists of all known plants in the Kaieteur National Park (Guyana), the “Checklist of the Plants of the Guianas”, and checklists of birds, mammals, fish, and herpetofauna for use by the Government of Guyana, UNESCO, and conservation groups seeking to enlarge the park area. BDG has completed a plant survey for Iwokrama International Rainforest Reserve (Guyana) for use in their conservation efforts. In June 1992, the BDG inaugurated the Centre for the Study of Biological Diversity on the campus of the University of Guyana, as a repository for collections and an educational facility for training the next generation of Guyanese systematists. Contact: Vicki Funk
Plant Conservation Unit
The Plant Conservation Unit promotes and coordinates activities and research that focus on plant conservation and endangered plant species. To document and understand the changes and decline in plant biodiversity, the Unit gathers and maintains data on the survival prospects of plant taxa. Information is shared with the international botanical, conservation and development communities. The Unit manages an information service by responding to requests from a variety of sources and providing information on world plant conservation, threatened species, habitats, and literature. Contact: Gary Krupnick
United States Botanic Garden
The Department of Botany has established a formal collaboration with the United States Botanic Garden (USBG), bringing together these two institutions that had their common historical nineteenth century beginnings in the National Institute for the Promotion of Science (1841) and the living and preserved collections resulting from the around-the-world Wilkes Exploring Expedition of 1838-1842. Located only several blocks from each other at the base of Capitol Hill, today the USBG is a free-standing institution under the administration of the Architect of the Capitol. The research, field exploration, training, and conservation components provided by the Department in combination with the horticultural and public display elements at the USBG form a highly significant botanical consortium in the Washington area with joint projects on research, botanical exhibition, environmental education and conservation. Significant collaborations between the two parties include the Smithsonian Botanical Symposium, an annual orchid show, and the Botanical Partners on the Mall Lecture Series, a quarterly event presented at the United States Botanic Garden. Contact: W. John Kress
ACEVEDO, Pedro, Research Botanist and Curator of Botany (Sapindaceae and Caribbean plants). B.A. (1977) University of Puerto Rico; Ph.D. (1989) City University of New York. Research specialties: Systematics or Neotropical Sapindaceae, especially Paullinieae; floristics of the Caribbean Islands (Greater Antilles); taxonomy of climbing plants.
DORR, Laurence J., Research Botanist and Curator of Botany (Malvaceae). B.A. (1976) Washington University; M.A. (1980) University of North Carolina; Ph.D. (1983) University of Texas. Research specialties: Systematics of Malvaceae including Sterculiaceae and Tiliaceae; tropical African and Malagasy Ericaceae; flora of the northern Andes; botanical history and bibliography.
EGAN, Ashley, Research Botanist and Assistant Curator of Botany (Fabaceae). B.S. (1998) Utah State University; Ph.D. (2006) Brigham Young University. Research specialties: Systematics of Leguminosae (especially tribe Phaseoleae), comparative genomics of polyploids, bioinformatics, and computational biology.
FUNK, Vicki A., Senior Research Botanist and Head, Biological Diversity of the Guianas (BDG) Program and Curator of Botany (Asteraceae). B.S. (1969), M.S. (1975) Murray State University; Ph.D. (1980) Ohio State University. Research specialties: Systematics of the Compositae, theoretical cladistics and biogeography, and methods for estimating biodiversity.
KRESS, W. John, Senior Research Botanist and Curator of Botany (Zingiberales). B.A. (1975) Harvard University; Ph.D. (1981) Duke University. Research specialties: Systematics of tropical monocots, especially gingers, bananas, and heliconias (Zingiberales); pollination biology, molecular variation, and phylogenetic relationships; Asian botany; DNA barcoding; conservation biology; using museum collections and data for assessing conservation priorities.
PETERSON, Paul M., Research Botanist and Curator of Botany (Poaceae). B.A. (1977) Humboldt State University; M.S. (1984) University of Nevada, Las Vegas; Ph.D. (1988) Washington State University. Research specialties: Systematics and floristics of New World grasses; phylogeny of the grass family.
SCHUETTPELZ, Eric, Research Botanist and Assistant Curator of Botany (Ferns Lycophytes and Bryophytes). B.S. (1999), M.S. (2001) University of Wisconsin; Ph.D. (2007), Duke University. Research specialties: Systematics and evolution of ferns, especially leptosporangiate species; epiphytic fern diversification.
WAGNER, Warren L., Chair of Botany; Research Botanist and Curator of Botany (Onagraceae and Pacific Island Plants). B.A. (1973), M.S. (1977) University of New Mexico; Ph.D. (1981) Washington University. Research specialties: Pacific Basin angiosperm floristics, systematics, phylogeny and biogeography; systematics and evolution of Oenothera (Onagraceae); phylogeny of Caryophyllaceae.
WEN, Jun, Research Botanist and Curator of Botany (Vitaceae and Asian Plants). B.S. (1984) Central China Agricultural University; Ph.D. (1991) Ohio State University. Research specialties: Systematics of flowering plants, especially Araliaceae; biogeography of the Northern Hemisphere; biogeography of Asia; economic botany.
WURDACK, Kenneth, Research Botanist and Associate Curator of Botany (Euphorbiaceae, Malpighiales). B.S. (1990) University of Maryland; M.S. (1994), Ph.D. (2002) University of North Carolina. Research specialties: Systematics and evolution of Euphorbiaceae and Malpighiales; molecular and genome evolution.
ZIMMER, Elizabeth Anne, Research Botanist and Curator of Botany (Genetic Collections). B.A. (1973) Cornell University; Ph.D. (1981) University of California, Berkeley. Research specialties: Molecular systematics of flowering plants; development of molecular markers across a range of species divergences.
Affiliated Research Staff
ADEY, Walter H., Research Scientist Emeritus. B.S. (1955) Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Ph.D. (1963) University of Michigan. Research specialties: Coralline algae, algal ecology, systematics and biogeography; water quality control and bioenergy; microcosm modeling of aquatic systems; Holocene geology as related to coastal ecosystems.
FADEN, Robert B., Research Scientist Emeritus. B.A. (1962) City College of New York; M.S. (1964) University of Michigan; Ph.D. (1975) Washington University. Research specialties: Systematics of Commelinaceae (world-wide); systematic anatomy; African floristics and biogeography; reproductive biology of angiosperms; pteridophytes.
NORRIS, James N., Research Scientist Emeritus. B.A. (1968), M.A. (1971) San Francisco State University; Ph.D. (1975) University of California, Santa Barbara. Research specialties: Systematics and ecology of benthic marine algae, especially tropical and subtropical species.
PUTTOCK, Christopher, Research Associate. B.S. (1977) University of New South Wales; Ph.D. (1992) University of New South Wales. Research specialties: Marine algae; Asteraceae; Flora of the Delmarva region.
ROBINSON, Harold E., Research Scientist Emeritus B.A. (1955) Ohio University; M.S. (1957) University of Tennessee; Ph.D. (1960) Duke University. Research specialties: Taxonomy of Bryophyta, with emphasis on exotic forms and Neotropical species; taxonomy and anatomy of Compositae.
SKOG, Laurence E., Research Scientist Emeritus. B.A. (1965) University of Minnesota; M.S. (1968) University of Connecticut; Ph.D. (1972) Cornell University. Research specialties: Systematics of wild and cultivated Neotropical Gesneriaceae; Neotropical floristics, especially flora of the Guianas.
SORENG, Robert, Research Associate. B.S. (1978) Oregon State University; M.S. (1980), Ph.D. (1986) New Mexico State University. Research specialties: Systematics, taxonomy, nomenclature; biogeography, breeding systems, and morphology of Poaceae, Pooideae, and Poa.