Classifying plants and fungi at Kew
If we are to conserve the world’s flora effectively, we must first know what plants exist and how they are related to each other. This is where Kew’s taxonomists come in.
Classifying plants in Madagascar
Kew's taxonomists are the botanists and mycologists who specialise in identifying, naming and classifying plants and fungi. In this film, Ruth Clark, Legumes Assistant at Kew, explains the vital role plant Kew's botanists play in understanding and protecting plant life around the world and the habitats we rely on, and why plants are the key to safeguarding our future.
Underpinning their work are Kew’s collections. Kew's Herbarium contains seven million preserved plant specimens, representing about 98% of the world’s genera and 75% of the world's plant species. Our fungal collection holds over 1.25 million specimens, making it one of the most comprehensive collections of its kind in the world. Meanwhile the Gardens themselves contain over 19,300 living plants and are home to over 2,700 species of fungi.
The need for knowledge
We still have much to learn about the world’s plants and fungi. Scientists estimate that 15-20% of plant species have not yet been described. And at present, about 2,000 new species of plants are discovered every year. A recent new discovery made by Kew's taxonomists is the suicide palm (Tahina spectabilis) of Madagascar. This plant grows to 18 metres tall before flowering itself to death. Our knowledge of fungi is even less extensive; as many as 90% of the estimated 1.5 million species that exist have yet to be named.
Putting plants in their place
Botanists group plants that are related to each other into families, which are further divided into genera and species. Specimens in Kew’s Herbarium collections are arranged in such a systematic way. This means that if someone has a specimen to identify that is similar to one in the collection, they are likely to find the matching plant close by. If the plants were arranged alphabetically it would be much harder to make those links.
Traditionally, Kew has used the Bentham & Hooker system of plant classification, which mainly groups plants by visible characteristics, i.e. their morphology. From 2010 Kew started to re-organise its Herbarium according to the new APGIII classification, which relies heavily on plant relationships determined by DNA analysis.
Using state-of-the-art tools
In the plant kingdom for example, peonies once thought to be related to buttercups because of their visual similarities, are in fact closer to saxifrages. While papayas have more affinity with cabbages than passion flowers.
In the fungi kingdom, puff balls previously placed in in the ill-defined group 'Gasteromycetes,' are now known to be close relatives of the agarics, which include the familiar mushrooms and toadstools.
In studying further such unexpected relationships of plants, Kew scientists examine other characteristics and traits, such as microscopic structure, pollen and chemistry. In 2010 Kew decided to adopt the new APGIII system of plant classification based on DNA sequence data. Some of our fungal collections are already arranged according to relationships deduced from DNA.
Help Kew break new ground
By making a donation to Kew today you can help Kew's scientists to find out more about the fascinating world of plants, break new ground and inspire new generations to get to know plants better.
Our scientific programmes are focused on understanding plants and conserving the world's plant life and habitats at risk. Plants are essential to life on earth. In a world where the sustainability of the planet’s rich biodiversity is becoming less certain, Kew’s science work is ever more critical. Find out how your donation can make a difference.
Scientific Data & Research
Keep up to date with events and news from Kew
- around the world
- the UK
- at risk
- ground breaking
- needs help
- english heritage
- Kew overseas
- verge of extinction
- wet tropics
- gifts that help
- South East Asia
- of use
- hot spot
- english garden
Science & Conservation news
07 Mar 2014
William Milliken, Head of Kew's Tropical America team, examines the importance of Kew's collection of over seven million herbarium specimens, and how this resource is being used to tackle the global challenges of our time.
21 Feb 2014
André Schuiteman, senior researcher in orchids at Kew, relates the discovery by the intrepid Evelyn Cheesman of one of the very few blue-flowered epiphytic orchids, Dendrobium azureum, which he recently described as a new species.
14 Feb 2014
Madeleine Groves, the CITES Implementation Officer at Kew, describes how the application of science can help combat illegal wildlife trade.
08 Nov 2012
A new study from Kew suggests that Arabica coffee could be extinct in the wild within 70 years.