As a graduate student in the late 1960s, Gerrit Davidse eagerly set out on his first plant-collecting expedition to a forest in Costa Rica. Fifteen years later, he revisited the place where he got his start. But the forest was gone. In its place was a cow pasture.
Davidse's experience has been repeated many times by many other botanists. Some who collected plants in particular forests as recently as 10 years ago have returned to find only muddy, barren landscapes.
This rapid destruction is a major impetus behind the ambitious Flora Mesoamericana. Davidse leads the Garden's collaboration on this project with hundreds of botanists at other institutions. It is the first comprehensive survey of the plants of Central America and Southern Mexico in more than 100 years, and the first in Spanish.
"Our goal is simple: to know, with a high degree of certainty, what's in the area," says Davidse, adding that research for the flora has yielded the discovery of more than a dozen new genera and hundreds of new species. "This is where our understanding of the plant world around us begins. This is where we amass the solid facts on which further investigations are based."
Many of the species that yield new information are endangered. "The problem is uncontrolled development," says Davidse. "Some of our expeditions are organized specifically because we know an area is slated for large-scale destruction. It's our hope that Flora Mesoamericana will engender awareness that results in more sustainable use of the area's limited botanical resources."
Davidse calls the fundamental work of Flora Mesoamericana, and other projects like it, part of the "wonder of science." He says, "We're documenting the full array of plant life. We look at everything, not just the beautiful or the economically profitable. We value it all."