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Biodiversity Public Lecture: Tuesday Nov 6

October 29, 2018


Biodiversity Lecture Series with Sandra Knapp

Floras for the Future: Why Plant Description Still Matters

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Exploration of plant diversity has been going on since humans first walked the Earth – so surely we must be done by now. Why should we describe the plant life of a country and write a flora, rather than investigating the deep structure of the tree of life, or addressing immediate societal problems such as war or hunger? In this lecture, Dr. Knapp will argue that the description of plant life on Earth is the basis for plant science and thus essential and always relevant for its advancement.

Description is one of the three principal tasks of taxonomy and systematics – along with identification and the investigation of relationships, phylogeny. Descriptive taxonomy has been characterized as “Cinderella science” and is often thought to be hypothesis-free or likened to stamp collecting, and is often thought to be irrelevant to modern scientific advancement. Dr. Knapp will explore descriptive taxonomy as practiced in floristics – the documentation of the plants of a particular area – and monography – the documentation of the plants of a particular taxonomic group, and link this to the role of description in creating further questions about how the world works.

Good knowledge of what grows where leads to more insightful hypotheses in other areas of the science, and to addressing societal challenges. These kinds of studies matter because they link cascades of ever-refined hypotheses about pattern and process in plant diversity that are ultimately necessary for solving all kinds of different questions. But floristic studies alone cannot solve many of the most pressing issues for human societies, that requires collaboration and connection, floristics cannot operate in isolation.

The next generation of floristic studies will be different to the floras of the past, but how? That is for all of us, not just plant taxonomists, to decide.

This is part of the Biodiversity Lecture Series, organized jointly by the Biodiversity Research Centre and the Beaty Biodiversity Museum.Visit the Beaty Biodiversity Museum before the public talk, admission by donation between 5:00pm-8:00pm.

Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability (CIRS)
Lecture Hall 1250, 2260 West Mall
Doors: 7:30 pm
Lecture starts: 8:00 pm
Registration required.

About the speaker

Sandra Knapp is botanist who is a specialist on the taxonomy and evolution of the nightshade family, Solanaceae, and she has spent much time in the field collecting plants, mostly in the Neotropics. She works at the Natural History Museum, London, where she arrived in 1992 to manage the international project Flora Mesoamericana - a synoptic inventory of the approximately 18,000 species of plants of southern Mexico and the isthmus of Central America. She is the author of several popular books on the history of science and botanical exploration, including the award-winning Potted Histories (2004), and more than 200 peer-reviewed scientific papers. She is actively involved in promoting the role of taxonomy and the importance of science worldwide. Sandy is a trustee of several conservation and scientific organisations, such as Fauna and Flora International (FFI) and the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland (BSBI). She is currently President of the Linnean Society of London. In 2009 she was honored by the Peter Raven Outreach Award by the American Society of Plant Taxonomists for her work in public engagement with science and the UK National Biodiversity Network’s John Burnett Medal for her work in biodiversity conservation; she holds honorary professorships at University College London and Stockholm University. Her current research focuses on the wild relatives of crop plants such as peppers and eggplants, the flora of Central America and Mexico, and patterns of diversification worldwide in the nightshade family.

About the venue

The Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability (CIRS) is fully accessible to wheelchairs through the entry ways, restrooms, and water fountains. Lecture Hall 1250 has several entrances and multiple spaces dedicated as accessible seating. If you have requests or questions about accessing this event, please email us at

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