09 September 2008

Why is the GRC at Selby Gardens?

By John R. Clark and Bruce K. Holst

Contemporary gesneriad research in North America had its roots in the early 1970s, and the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens (est. 1973) played a significant role. The importance of gesneriads at Selby Gardens is evident from the Gardens’ seal that illustrated a bromeliad, an orchid, and a gesneriad. Hans Wiehler was the driving force behind Selby’s early gesneriad program, helping to build the living and preserved collections during his tenure there. After leaving Selby Gardens in the early 1980s, Wiehler created the Gesneriad Research Foundation (also in Sarasota, Florida) to continue his work on the family while Selby Gardens focused its efforts on bromeliads and orchids. Simultaneously, Larry Skog, a leading gesneriad authority and contemporary of Wiehler’s, was furthering gesneriad research at the Smithsonian Institution, a legacy first established by Conrad Morton in the 1930s. During the last two decades of the 20th century, Wiehler’s Gesneriad Research Foundation and Skog’s efforts at the Smithsonian were key in furthering our knowledge of the family.

In 2002, with his health failing, Hans Wiehler made the decision to donate the several thousand herbarium specimens of the Gesneriad Research Foundation (GRF) to Selby Gardens. The GRF’s collection of liquid-preserved specimens would soon follow. These specimens had been accumulated through numerous field trips over a nearly 30-year period (1971-1999), and represent the most significant collection of gesneriads made by a single individual. Larry Skog was enlisted to assist in the consolidation of the specimens into the Selby Herbarium. Contributing to this effort were Jeanne Katzenstein (Editor of Gesneriads, the journal of The Gesneriad Society), Bruce Holst (Selby Gardens Herbarium Curator), John R. Clark (now director of gesneriad programs at Selby), Melissa McDowell (Suncoast Chapter of The Gesneriad Society), and many dedicated volunteers.

Meanwhile, Skog was nearing the end of his industrious career at the Smithsonian; retiring in 2003. The venerable institution would not be continuing gesneriad research in an official capacity after his retirement, thus leaving a need for a centralized research program. With its newly acquired GRF collections and existing resources, it was clear to all involved that Selby Gardens was an excellent choice to host a center specializing in gesneriads.

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