Step into the unassuming front entrance of a refurbished old warehouse in Fort Worth, Texas, and you step at once into the past, present, and future of botany — the Botanical Research Institute of Texas (BRIT), an international resource that is uncommonly accessible to the public.
In recent years, the term “botany” has become passé; “plant sciences” is its rather sterile replacement. Universities that once had a department of botany now have a plant sciences laboratory. Once the realm of live plants, dried herbarium specimens, and a vasculum, botany has evolved into a high-tech field dominated by cellular, molecular, and genetic biology.
But botany in the traditional sense is alive and well at BRIT. Make no mistake about it, BRIT is not a time capsule where science looks back at what once was. It is a place where active, almost frenetic research stretches into 12-hour days and weekends for the four full-time staff members. BRIT director Dr. William F. Mahler greets visitors with a warm smile and friendly glint behind professorial spectacles. Collections manager Barney Lipscomb is more than eager to share his diverse botanical knowledge with the visiting researcher. Jayne Uerling, assistant to the director, is an energetic detail person who makes sure everyone’s needs are met, not to mention coordinating about 200 hours worth of volunteer help each month. Administrative assistant Steve Dunkly helps keep the whole operation moving like clockwork. Visitors can’t help but be amazed that this small staff keeps up with so large a task.
What sets BRIT apart from other botanical research institutions in the United States is its mission to bring botany to the public: To expand our knowledge and understanding of the plant world as the most basic of our world’s resources by caring for and maintaining the group of herbaria and botanical library collections it holds in trust, and by making these collections available to the scientific community and the general public as tools for research, education, environmental, and cultural enhancement.
And what will you find if you visit BRIT? Just inside the front door, you’ll encounter a special exhibit such as the recent “Woods of the World,” which included materials from Central America, Kenya, and Tanzania. A central feature of the exhibit was an ebony and gold-adorned reproduction of Queen Hetepheres’s throne chair. Predating King Tut by more than 2000 years, the 4000-year-old original represents the earliest known chair design.
Through a special climate-controlled entrance to the right, past the front desk, and up the stairs (or elevator), you enter the heart of BRIT. Herbarium cabinets line both sides of the long hall in neat rows. Specimens are arranged alphabetically by plant family, making access easy even for the nonbotanist. Work tables with dissecting microscopes, some piled high with books pulled for a research project, run the length of the hall. The warmth of old books and furniture is highlighted by the rich patina of hardwood floors. Here is where taxonomists plumb the secrets of plant relationships. BRIT’s herbarium collection comprises more than 400,000 specimens, including a pressed Heliotropium ternatum that dates back to 1791. Most of the plant families on the planet are represented; of the 628 recognized herbaria in the United States (collections with more than 5000 specimens), BRIT ranks in the top 25.
Books at BRIT
Unless you are a botanist, horticulturist, artist, or landscape architect who may want to look at a particular plant group, you probably don’t have much need for an herbarium. The general gardener, though, will find another treasure at BRIT — its 50,000-volume botanical library. Here you will find original copies of such seventeenth-century masterpieces as Gerard’s Herball and John Parkinson’s Theatrum Botanicum. A recent acquisition is a 1549 edition of Dioscorides’ first-century classic, De Materia Medica, the herbal that served as the basis for Western medicine for nearly 1500 years.
BRIT publishes Iridoids, a bimonthly newsletter, and professional journals including Sida — Contributions to Botany and Sida — Botanical Miscellany. Hundreds of periodicals are found in the BRIT library.
BRIT, Past and Future
BRIT was started in 1943 from the library and plant collections of Dr. Lloyd H. Shinners at Southern Methodist University. The university placed the collection on permanent loan to BRIT in 1987, and it moved to its present location in 1990. Rapidly outgrowing what must at first have seemed like spacious quarters, it will move again in 1993 to a new facility at the Fort Worth Botanical Garden. The move will make BRIT an even more valuable resource, with access to live plant material just a few steps away.
If you have reason to travel to Fort Worth or just need an excuse to go there, make it a point to visit BRIT. You will find the experience rewarding.
For more information on visiting or supporting BRIT, visit www.brit.org.