Plant Collections in the News
How Technology Saves the World's Plants
Plant Collections Department
The Plant Collections Department is responsible for the cataloging and tracking of all plants at San Francisco Botanical Garden. This catalog tracks details on over 20,000 plants located in 55 acres of gardens.
Each unique specimen group is called an accession. Unique accession numbers are assigned to each group of plants of the same scientific name received from one source on one date. The accession number is comprised of the four digit year received, a hyphen, and a unique four digit number. For example, 2003-0503 San Bruno Mountain Manzanita (Arctostaphylos imbricata) was the 503rd accession processed in 2003. Different accession numbers are given to the same species to track the source material, and to preserve any location information on collections from the wild. 703 accessions were processed in 2007, representing over 6,000 individual plants.
A small metal tag, engraved with the accession number and plant name, plant family and geographical origins is affixed to all perennial plants when they are received. From this point on, the locations of the specimens are tracked so they may be relocated at any time. The San Francisco Botanical Garden has accessioned over 21,000 plants during its history (over 20,000 still living), representing over 13,000 different kinds of plants (over 8,000 taxa still living).
San Francisco Botanical Garden was an early adoptee of computer technology by entering accession information from card files into a database in 1989. A custom built solution, called SPIRS (Strybing Plant Information Records System) digitized the information into an early version of DBase software. Similarly in the early 1990s, the Garden was mapped in AutoCAD drafting software. Information that is tracked in accession records includes items such as scientific name, family name, common name, native range, source of plants, and quantity of plants.
Interpretive labels help the public to identify and appreciate plants in the garden.
Inventory of each garden section is done on a 5 year rotating basis. This inventorying allows us to update bed maps and verify existing or dead/removed plants. Once an inventory is completed for a garden section (eg. Rhododendron garden, CA Native garden…) a hand drawn map and inventory list for each bed is then catalogued and the plant database is updated. In the future, locations of plants will be entered on a GIS database, pinpointed via satellite and computerized maps will be available for Plant Collections use, research, and even simple guest requests.("I would like a map with all of your blooming Magnolias")
With our current database upgrade, we now have the ability to quickly check plant names in the International Plant Names Index and other online references, add digital photos to the accession records, and produce comprehensive illustrated lists of plants by species, by bed number, or any other criteria.
One currrent challenge is the continuing inventory and checking all of our records while keeping up with the multitude of projects that are underway in the garden. Each newly renovated garden must be inventoried, mapped, and have all new tags and signs manufactured.
Plant records are now accessible from the Plant Collections Office, Library, and Nursery. In the not so distant future, a good part of our plant records will be available online through a collaborative effort with the Chicago Botanic Garden's Plant Collections Project.
Other responsibilities of the department include the manufacture of plant identification signs and the smaller interpretive signs you see in the garden. Initially each sign was individually engraved by staff or volunteers on an aging rotary engraver. We now have a laser engraver, which will allows for engraving on much more durable metal signs of larger size (up to 12 by 24 inches), as well as the addition of images and maps to labels, if desired.
Bed maps help to locate and track plants in the garden.
Other tasks in day-to-day collections management include performing background research on species appropriate for use in the various geographic and theme gardens. Choosing the right species for our educational focus and climate, and finding sources of rare and unusual species which is a challenging and rewarding aspect of work that we share with the Nursery department at San Francisco Botanical Garden. We often find plants that do not have any recorded growing trials in our climate, and it is always a gamble to see if the species thrives in our summer fog or winter dampness. The Department, with the aid of City Gardeners and dedicated volunteers, have in the past, surveyed the gardens, collecting ripe seed from noteworthy species. These seeds were compiled into lists called the Index Seminum once a year. These seeds are exchanged with botanical gardens and researchers worldwide. Exotic plants from our collections have been sent to all corners of the world including Siberia, Australia, Europe, Africa, and South America. Although, we currently don't have the staffing to collect seeds and distribute our Index Seminum, it is a project we hope to begin working on again in the coming years.
The department also oversees the issuing of permits to researchers and educators who visit the gardens seeking samples of rare and unusual plants for scientific and educational study. Permits have included a range of research from DNA studies examining evolutionary relationships of different plants, to the testing new species for active medicinal compounds in the fight against cancer, to specimen collecting for plant identification and illustration.
The Plant Collections Department does many varied tasks, but all of them are a very important part of what it means to be a true Botanical Garden. Feel free to come by our office (located right in back of the Helen Crocker Russell Library office) for a chat to find out more about what a Plant Collections Department really does to help make SFBG a world-class botanical garden.