Botany One interviews Dr Charlotte M. Taylor for Fascination for Plants Day and learn more about her passion for taxonomy and puzzles.

With Fascination of Plants Day approaching, Botany One has prepared a series of interviews with researchers from around the world working in different areas of botany to share the stories and inspiration behind their careers.

Today, we have Dr Charlotte M. Taylor, Curator at the Herbarium of the Missouri Botanical Garden (Saint Louis, United States). Taylor is a specialist in the Rubiaceae, one of the largest flowering plant families that is particularly diverse in the American Tropics. According to a survey by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and the University of Cambridge, Taylor is the most prolific female author of new plant species alive, with 500 plant species described.

Taylor in the Herbarium at the Missouri Botanical Garden. Photo by Nathan Kwarta.

What made you become interested in plants?

The natural world and its variation have always fascinated me, and in this natural world, living plants are the most visible and endless set of different organisms; and the more I looked at them, the more details and variation I found. Then I discovered that we humans don’t actually know much about most plants, so looking at plants is a true adventure into the unknown world that is all around us. Adventure and finding new things have always excited me. So, I began to discover something new about plants every day just by looking carefully: looking at plants is never boring and endlessly fascinating. 

What motivated you to pursue your current area of research?

I tried several professional fields but never stopped thinking about plants. So I gave up and focused on botany, and was fortunate to have a broad university training that has been helpful ever since. I started as a botany professor, which was rewarding, but my passion for looking at each plant species and form never diminished. That is now my main work: I am a plant taxonomist, writing floras and identification guides. My work focuses on one group of plants, which is quite large: the Rubiaceae, the coffee and quinine family. Every day, we find something new, including plant species new to science. It may sound boring to write reference books, but we know so little about most plants that my job is actually to discover the unknown information needed for the books. 

Flowers of Palicourea atlantica from Bahia (Brazil). Photo by Petra De Block

What is your favourite part of your work related to plants?

I work with plants as herbarium specimens and, at times, also in the field in tropical America, looking at living plants. My favourite parts are 1) looking at the specimens or individuals of any and all plants in my study group in detail, identifying them, and seeing if the habitat and location they are found agree with what we know, or they present us a little surprise; 2) travelling to exotic, biodiverse tropical countries and working with my great colleagues there and seeing new places and enjoying different foods; and 3) finding a plant of my group that I can’t identify because it is new to science and has no name. 

Are any specific plants or species that have intrigued or inspired your research? If so, what are they and why?

My work focuses on one group of plants from the American tropics, the genus Palicourea in the Rubiaceae. These have a wide range of flower sizes, flower colours, and presentations, so the variation of forms never ends, and most species have showy flowers that are pollinated by hummingbirds, which are beautiful and fascinating. Figuring out the different Palicourea starts by learning about the species in a particular region or country, which is intriguing, like solving a puzzle. And then inspiration comes when you walk out in the forest — and find a species of Palicourea that you, the person who knows them all, have never seen before! I was lucky to find such a species during my graduate research, and it turned me into an addict for finding the next new thing for science. The first of these discoveries was Palicourea spathacea from Costa Rica. 

Taylor in Cali (Colombia) with a sample of Ladenbergia oblongifolia. Photo by Alba Marina Torres

Could you share an experience or anecdote from your work that has marked your career and reaffirmed your fascination with plants?

On a field trip in the tropical Andes, we found a poorly known species of Palicourea in flower. This was exciting, and I started to cut some branches to make a specimen and suddenly was attacked repeatedly by a hummingbird, who followed me for some distance. I was in his territory stealing his food plants, and he was deadly serious about stopping me. Ecology is deadly serious for wild plants and animals, and in order to target conservation efforts, we need to understand them. 

What advice would you give young scientists considering a career in plant biology?

You get your best personal satisfaction from doing things you enjoy, and also you do your best work on those, so try to follow your passion. You probably won’t ever make loads of money in botany, but you will find a different kind of satisfaction. Botany is not an easy route; many people don’t even know what it is, but in botany, you will find endless new discoveries and also the best colleagues in the world, all over the world. The bottom secret to success in botany is the same for other fields: don’t give up if you don’t find success immediately; keep on going. 

Palicourea albertsmithii in Chingaza National Park (Colombia). Photo by Robinson Galindo.

What do people usually get wrong about plants?

People don’t realise that plants are independent living organisms with their own super-different life, lifestyle, and world. People speculate frequently on what alien life on other planets will be like, but green plants on Earth are already more alien then any of the space aliens people talk about. They have to survive in just one spot, they make food from air and water and light and dirt, they run their lower parts deep into the soil and mix their tissues there with fungi, they are interconnected with each other physically, they grow in pieces that can break off, they hand over their sperm to the wind or an insect or a bird to deliver to their girlfriends, they make babies that are just tiny little things with a few cells, and their babies can then sit for weeks or months or decades basically dead then quickly revive and grow into even a tree, which can support itself as a simple round pole as much as 100 m tall. Who needs to go find space aliens to see a completely different form of life? 

Carlos A. Ordóñez-Parra

Carlos (he/him) is a Colombian seed ecologist currently doing his PhD at Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais (Belo Horizonte, Brazil) and working as a Science Editor at Botany One and a Social Media Editor at Seed Science Research. You can follow him on X and BlueSky at @caordonezparra.

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