ITW Plant Systematics Laboratory

The Quest for Accuracy in Naming Plants and Cataloging Specimens

What’s in a name? If you’re a plant, everything. Knowing the name of a plant not only allows one to list it, but also to find information on its ecology. It’s critical to have accurate identifications when describing a plant community for ecological research or restoration activities, or when preserving rare and endangered species.

How is one plant species related to others? Names provide the clues and give the answers. Plant systematics is the classification and study of plant diversity and evolution, and all the research going in the Ecology, Population Biology, and Harris Family Foundation Plant Genetics laboratories here at the Chicago Botanic Garden depends upon it.

PHOTO: HerbariumHerbarium

Plant systematics is used as a basis for fields as diverse as restoration, medicinal research, and historic climate changes. Supporting this work is the preparation, mounting, and accessioning of new herbarium specimens. A herbarium is a historical record, documenting what plants grew where and when.

How Plant Systematics and the Herbarium Benefit You—and the World

PHOTO:The ITW Plant Systematics Laboratory ensures the accuracy of plant names, and is part of an effort you benefit from every time you plan a garden, visit the grocery store, take your medicine…the list goes on and on. Without such precision, the effect in some cases might be more annoying than critical—bringing home a plant labeled hardy for your area that turned out to be a less-hardy cultivar, for example. But imagine not being completely certain if the plant alkaloid used in your cancer treatment is really from the correct species of yew tree. The meticulous work scientists perform with thousands of specific plant species as they explore any number of research areas simply couldn’t happen if plants were not reliably classified.

PHOTO: Herbarium The Garden's Nancy Poole Rich Herbarium is a reference collection of preserved plants, complete with important data such as collecting location and date, ecological conditions, and other plants found in close proximity. Why keep plants forever? Used as a historical record, documentation of invasive species’ arrivals, last recording of a rare plant, or indicator of plant movement due to climate change, the herbarium benefits you indirectly by providing vital information directly to scientists. The herbarium collection is also a source of DNA, which can be extracted from leaves or other plant material and provides the “what, when, and where” for plant genetics research.

The herbarium has the capacity to house approximately 70,000 specimens and currently holds more than 14,000 accessioned specimens. Researchers interested in visiting the herbarium should contact herbarium curator Nyree Zerega.

Case Studies

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Greg Mueller, Ph.D., vice president of science and academic programs, has focused his research on the systematics, biogeography, ecology, population biology, and conservation of higher fungi, especially mushrooms and other macrofungi. He is leading an effort to document the worldwide diversity and distribution of fungi and the factors influencing these patterns. In addition to spearheading survey and inventory projects in China and Latin America, Dr. Mueller has been investigating how fungi respond to anthropogenic stress and restoration efforts in the Chicago area, and conservation practices in Costa Rica and China.

boy with breadfruitGarden scientist Nyree Zerega, Ph.D., has found that the diversity of the mulberry family (Moraceae) makes it an excellent group for addressing evolutionary questions. She integrates molecular, morphological, and phylogenetic tools with fieldwork to investigate the systematics, evolution, biogeography, and reproductive ecology of the mulberry family and the origins of several tropical crop species in the family, such as breadfruit and jackfruit.

Patrick Herendeen, Ph.D., senior scientist and director of academic partnerships, is working to understand the evolutionary history of the large and diverse Leguminosae family. Focusing on the critically important subfamily Caesalpinioideae, Dr. Herendeen is developing a comprehensive phylogeny for caesalpinioid legumes based on combined analyses of morphological and molecular data. This phylogeny will serve as the basis for a new classification system and the framework to explore patterns of morphological and molecular evolution.

The Plant Systematics Laboratory is a gift of the Illinois Tool Works Foundation.

take action:
What can you do?

You can look it up:
With funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the Garden, in partnership with The Morton Arboretum and the Field Museum of Natural History, is making its herbarium database and images of representative specimens available at vPlants: The Chicago Regional Virtual Herbarium.

PHOTO: Herbarium Volunteer

You can volunteer:
Herbarium volunteers at the Garden organize, label, and mount plant specimens, perform data entry, or digitally scan herbarium specimens.

in the laboratory

As the dictionary indicates, a voucher serves as evidence or proof attesting to the accuracy of something. Herbarium researchers at the Garden document specific plants that have been studied for specific projects by creating a “voucher” specimen that can be used by future scientists to verify plants they study. The new Herbarium, located in the ITW Plant Systematics Laboratory, can store hundreds of thousands of such specimens, greatly expanding capacity.

Staff Scientists

Patrick S. Herendeen, Ph.D.
Senior Scientist
Director of Academic Partnerships

Susanne Masi, M.A.
Plant Conservation
Manager of Regional Floristics

Gregory M. Mueller, Ph.D.
Vice President, Science and Academic Programs

Nyree J. C. Zerega, Ph D.
Director, Graduate Program in Plant Biology and Conservation