Counting Plants

Not everything that can be counted counts, Not everything that counts can be counted. – Albert Einstein

Winding uphill through the streets of Berkeley, we arrive at the University of CA Botanical Garden in Strawberry Canyon.  There we are faced with a decision of paying the parking meter for the number of hours we need to explore the garden.  The garden holds over 12,000 plants including many rare and endangered plant specimens.  Director Paul Licht does the math for visitors.  “If you allow only 2 hours, a 120 min. visit would require that you see 100 different kinds of plants per minute to experience our entire collection.”  Obviously we will need a full day, even then we won’t truly see all of the plants.  Those we do see will be only a glimpse of life of the plants.  A plant today may be dormant, budding, blooming or declining.

How many plants do we need to see?  How many plants do we need to know?  Better yet do we need to count the number of plants?  Do I need to keep a life list as birders often do?  How many plants are there?  This isn’t a simple question.  Does it matter?

Our culture likes to count things, Gary Gates, UCLA School of Law recently wrote, “you don’t really count unless you’re counted.”  There are several projects trying to count the number of plants in the world.  Here is a sample.

TROPICOS Plant Data Base

1.2 mil known species

3.9 mil specimen records

Internet Encyclopedia Project

1.8 mil species

300,000 accepted species names

US Dept. Agriculture, North America

400,000 species

44,000 images

My garden

93 species

272 plants

Numbers like this can make your head sore.  Listing and counting plants helps us make sense of our diverse world, but we have yet to see everything let alone classify all plants.  We certainly haven’t learned how all plants heal, feed or shelter all the species on earth. Some people can’t be bothered, others want to save every single one.

The Berkeley Botanical Garden mission is “To develop and maintain a diverse living collection of plants to support teaching and worldwide research in plant biology, further the conservation of plant diversity, and promote public understanding and appreciation of plants and the natural environment.”

They have been keeping track of plants since the 1870’s with California plants the first priority of the collection.  Eventually university expeditions to South American and Africa added specimens to the collections.  Naturalists & Biologists traveled off to find individual specimens in their natural habitats, collecting, labeling and transporting the plants back to the Botanical Garden for study.  This continued for years.  Today in addition to the California and North American collection there are plants from Asia, Australia, the Mediterranean, Mexico/Central America, South America and Southern Africa.

A collaborative project between the Guangzhou College of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Guangdong Province, China, the American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine in San Francisco, and the Botanical Garden has produced the only Medicinal Garden arranged by the healing function of the plants in the US.

An old rose garden features roses developed by hybrid prior to 1867.  The history of the rose reaches back hundreds of years on several continents.  These old roses produce blooms much different from many seen today.  The location of this garden also gives you a stunning view of the San Francisco Bay.

Seeing each plant is humbling realizing how much there is to learn; the first sighting of a new plant like a strawberry tree  (arbutus unedo) from Italy is exciting, experiencing the scent of a Mexican chocolate Dahlia is surprising and sweet, reading the legend of the Monkey Puzzle Tree amusing.

Strawberry Tree

Protecting and studying all plants requires significant resources and serious commitment.  The UC Berkeley Botanical Garden works each day to fulfill their mission. The amazing and huge numbers of plants challenge all of us to try to comprehend the importance of every species on this planet.  As a culture in love with numbers, especially when we are always striving to be #1 we are often frustrated when we have to change our thinking to protect just one.

Chocolate Dahlia

The UC Berkeley Botanical Garden has a least two unique features.  First, from a scientific research point the collection is the result of a guiding principal to “limit acquisitions to wild-collected specimens of documented origins.”   Scientific research will then have access to original plant DNA as a baseline for agriculture, drug research and conservation work.  This is a priceless resource for all species on the planet.  This collection represents something of value, that is, as we stand with our current knowledge of plants, simply impossible to count.

Monkey Puzzle Tree

The other unique feature is you can spend a day here experiencing this Botanical Garden with its’ trails, plant life, views of the San Francisco Bay and Golden Gate bridge and never have a t-shirt shop in sight.  For me that really counts!

Originally published in Roots & Shoots Newsletter @

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