When Lady Bird Johnson founded the Wildflower Center—then the National Wildflower Research Center—one of her concerns was the rapid disappearance of plant species.
"Will these plants be lost to all but memory, with succeeding generations losing even that fragile connection? Are there sources of food, fiber or medicine that might perish with them? How do we save these species in the face of an ever-expanding human population and its impact on the land?" she asked in an early letter to Wildflower Center visitors.
Nearly 29 years later, plant extinction is an even greater problem. Urban and rural development, overgrazing and invasive species threaten many of our native plants. And we cannot even assess our loss—it’s possible that some of the vanished species might have contributed greatly to medical research, like the Pacific yew tree which provided an important cancer-fighting drug.
In fact, a recent study by an international research team led by Emmett Duffy of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science showed that loss of biodiversity threatens the vital services that plants provide for humans, such as providing food, helping purify water supplies, generating oxygen and supplying raw materials for building, clothing, paper, and other products.
That’s why the Wildflower Center has an active, multi-pronged plant conservation program. Under the direction of botanist Flo Oxley, our intrepid seed collectors, Michael Eason in Alpine and Minnette Marr in Austin, have trained more than 100 volunteers as dedicated as themselves to help in seed banking and plant rescue. Whether it’s the rare poppy mallow due to be uprooted by construction or a population of large cacti threatened by road construction, they are on the job.
A large part of their mission is collecting seeds of backbone species, cleaning and banking them at the Royal Botanic Garden, Kew, United Kingdom, and the National Center for Genetic Resource Preservation in Fort Collins, CO. The Wildflower Center collects seeds for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service among other organizations and has even helped the Food and Drug Administration find plants.
Our seed collectors brave lightning strikes, blistering heat, alligators and rattlesnakes to collect seeds and specimens, but the greatest threat they face is the lack of funding. The global recession forced the Royal Botanic Garden to cut back its Millennium Seed Bank program, and funding from other government programs is limited.
By training citizen-scientist volunteers, the Wildflower Center has been able to keep its seed banking programs alive and has trained 1,000 more citizen scientists to report invasive plants—the second greatest threat to biodiversity after habitat destruction. Led by Travis Gallo, coordinator of the Invaders of Texas program, these volunteers have mapped more than 12,000 reports on the spread of invasives, aiding the development of plans to combat and control these invaders.
By working with private landowners in a state where 96 percent of property is in private hands, our seed collectors have gotten access to private land and places where it might be possible reintroduce rare species back into the wild.
Another important Wildflower Center program is research on threatened, endangered and species of concern, including studies on Texas wild-rice (Zizania texana), Texas poppy mallow (Callirhoe scabriuscula), Puzzle sunflower (Helianthus paradoxus), Texas snowbells (Styrax texana) and other species. Better knowledge may lead to better propagation techniques and ways to re-establish and support populations in the wild.
When you support the Wildflower Center Gala, you are helping us save our native plants, ensuring that future generations will not be deprived of the many benefits they can bring. And you will be carrying on the legacy of our founder, Lady Bird Johnson.