BRIT: Botany for Everyone

Public access to botanical information

| February/March 1993

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.

Uncommon Accessibility

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.

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