There are about 350,000 species of vascular plants, most of which are found in the Tropics. These are divided amongst about 500 families of varying sizes, from a single species to 35,000 species (orchids). Plants provide most of our food, clothes, building materials and are the source of most medicines. Ironically they are also the source of fossil fuels. The current changing climate and massive destruction of natural habitats makes our ability to manage and use this resource sustainably critical for the maintenance of our current lifestyles and quality of life. Key to this is the ability to document that diversity, for similar reasons to the need for a stock-check in a supermarket. One family of plants that many tropical botanists live in fear of identifying is the laurel (bay) family Lauraceae.
The laurel family (Lauraceae) comprises over 3,000 species of mostly trees found throughout the Tropics. It includes avocados, cinnamon and bay-laurel. Far more importantly it provides a major source of food for large birds in the Tropics and one of the most important sources of timber. Lauraceae are also one of the most difficult groups of plants to identify and as is the case with many plant groups, there is currently only one person who can identify them with any confidence. That person is Henk van der Werff from the Missouri Botanical Garden and we were very lucky to have him visit Kew to spend two weeks going through our unidentified material. Our reliance on his visit to identify our collections highlighted two things to me: 1) we really need to capture his knowledge, and 2) cheap video recording by phone or camera coupled with youtube could provide the means to do so.
So when Henk visited this month we asked him if he would be happy for us to film him providing overviews of identifications to the most commonly encountered genera in South America. Bearing in mind that we are not professional film-makers and are experimenting he was very gracious in agreeing to do so. Our aim is to develop a flexible format that will enable the capture and disseminaton of some of the basic identification skills currently only held by a very small number of people, using equipment and resources that are widely available. That way when the expert botanists retire, are laid off or die, not all of their knowledge will be lost.
You can see the results on youtube with the following links to Ocotea, Nectandra, Aniba, Persea, Licaria, Endlicheria and Pleurothyrium: