Field of Science

What is a rare plant?

"Do you have any rare plants in here?" asked a recent visitor to our teaching greenhouse. This is an interesting question that left the Phactor a bit uncertain how to answer. Our teaching greenhouse is on the smallish size, but an impressive amount of plant diversity is housed therein, and so the only question was what did our visitor mean by rare? Do you mean rare in the absolute sense as in nearly extinct? No, nothing in that category. Our greenhouse and collection couldn't be trusted with any plant so very rare. Do you mean rare in the sense as in this plant is very uncommon anywhere anyhow although not in any danger of extinction? Well then yes, we have at least one plant that is an narrow endemic from a Pacific island, a rather non-descript amaryllid. Do you mean rare in the sense that the plant is uncommon in collections and not commonly known, but it could be as common as dirt where it is native? Yes, lots of plants here would fit that description. A dozen or so may be the only specimen of that species in North America, or a most one of a handfull, like a wild nutmeg (a couple of offspring were given away). And it's always nice when the Missouri Botanical Garden gives us their exhibit left overs for safe keeping. Do you mean simply rare in the sense of something exotic that you've probably never seen or noticed before? Then probably there are a couple of hundred species that are rare in that sense. Not many places around where you can see 9 different genera of cycads, especially in such a small place. The Garfield Park Conservatory in Chicago has the biggest collection in these parts, but we recently donated several new things to that collection via a former student of mine. Maybe you just mean rare in that you can learn something new that you never knew before, and in that case virtually all our plants are rare, and that's the point of maintaining collections like this. Plant collections give you an opportunity to get curious and explore in a way that you seldom get elsewhere, and unlike an arboretum or botanical garden (the Phactor has been barked at more than once; actually he gets barked at a lot) where playing with the specimens is frowned upon, students are actually encouraged to examine things to the point of taking them apart to see how they tick. So let's hope the examples were impressive because this particular visitor holds some purse strings. Now what the Phactor really wants is a conservatory greenhouse surrounded by a modest sized botanical garden. $20 million should get us off to a good start.

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