The following is one of five profiles that appeared in Pond
& Garden May-June 2000, Volume 2, Issue 1 as part of
"People, Places & Plants of the PCL of Waterlily Names".
The Introduction, linked below, explains how the articles came
Dr. John Wiersema
By Kit Knotts & John Wiersema
Reprinted from Pond & Garden May-June 2000
Click images to enlarge
Another problem with building the PCL was that I had no
example to go by. I was sent Registers and Registration Forms
of other genera but really had no clue what information should
be included in the PCL. I received generous guidance from Dr.
Alan Leslie and Piers Trehane of the ISHS (International Society
for Horticultural Science), the organization which governs this
work, but it was occasional and sporadic.
I believe that these gentlemen realized I was a lay person
(but willing!) and added to the job description gradually. It's
a good thing that it was gradual because I would have been totally
intimidated by the requirements if presented at the outset. I
was told early that I was not required to include information
about Nymphaea species. As the cultivar list took shape it was
"suggested" that species information be included in
order to be sure that ALL names had been researched in search
of cultivar names.
Ahhhggg! How was I to do this? "Trawl" the databases
was the humorously offhand answer. I trawled databases until
I was blue, everything I could find on the Web, including Missouri
Botanical Garden's W3Tropicos, Harvard's Gray Card Index and,
most importantly, GRIN. It's author, Dr. John Wiersema, was
on our committee thanks to Betsy.
The list of names with which we began was compiled by Philip
Swindells in 1988 and, though it was only names, incomplete and
out of date, it was a start. When I sent it out I received extensive
notes from John about species names on that list, duly entered
them in the database and didn't really appreciate their value.
When suddenly confronted with hundreds of names found trawling,
John became my new best friend.
John is one of the leading taxonomists in the world, has a
special interst in waterlilies and has done an astounding amount
of work in aid of this PCL. I am embarrassed to look back at
the dumb questions I asked him before I finally woke up to just
how important he and GRIN are to the plant world. He kept telling
me that the currently accepted species names were all in his
database. Simple. Don't complicate it.
Once that penetrated, I was still stuck with all these "other"
names that I had to put somewhere. John, within about 48 hours,
researched each and every one of them, put them in the GRIN database
(available on line) with their currently accepted synonyms, sent
them to me and added notes for clarification as needed. WOW!
More questions arose and John's turn-around time for answers
got shorter (if you can imagine that from this incredibly busy
man), sometimes firing back within hours. The result is that
our PCL has absolutely up-to-date chapter-and-verse information
on Nymphaea species names from the world's leading authority
in the field.
Naturally once the dust settled, I had to ask > May
I include you in the article for Pond & Garden? Will you
tell me about yourself?
Currently, I am a botanist in the Systematic Botany and Mycology
Laboratory of the United States Department of Agriculture, Agricultural
Research Service at the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center
in Maryland. My primary responsibilities involve providing taxonomic
and nomenclatural expertise to the National Plant Germplasm System
through its Germplasm Resources Information Network (GRIN). I
have worked in this capacity since 1984 (initially as a research
associate of the University of Maryland), acquiring considerable
experience and data on the nomenclature of economic plants.
Much of my first twenty-four years of life was spent in western
Michigan, growing up, as the fourth of eight children, in a semi-rural
environment near Muskegon and later attending Western Michigan
University in Kalamazoo. With a B.S. in Psychology and Sociology
completed in 1974, I moved to Tuscaloosa, Alabama to work in
a state mental-retardation institution.* ** Later I attended
the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, completing both a M.S.
and a Ph.D. in biology by 1984 under the supervision of Dr. Robert
R. Haynes, an aquatic plant taxonomist. My graduate studies focused
on the systematics of aquatic vascular plants, particularly those
of the water-lilies and their relatives.
> John, how in the world did you get from here* to there**?
Here is your missing link: Already confronting the realization
of future psychological burnout, I had begun undergraduate work
in biology, although never having taken a botany course, in the
last two years in Michigan and finished with an undeclared biology
minor involving 20 semester hours. Having exhausted my undergraduate
schooling options (i.e., funds), I was then compelled to enter
the work force with the only marketable major I had completed,
psychology. Some two years later, with the knowledge
gained from my biology coursework and independent study I was
able to score sufficiently well in biology on the GRE exam to
achieve conditional admission to a graduate biology program at
the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, where I then resided.
A few more undergraduate courses were required in graduate school
to remedy deficiencies, but within a year these were completed
and I was on my way to a botany career.
It was during this time that I began cultivating species
returned from field expeditions. This provided material for a
variety of studies such as scanning electron microscopy, phytochemistry,
chromosome number, reproductive biology, numerical taxonomy,
and morphology. Because the observation of nocturnal flowering
responses in Hydrocallis was far more convenient if they were
nearby, I grew them in 25 backyard washtubs.
Childhood had instilled in me an appreciation for the outdoors,
and some 50,000 miles of travel around North America during my
undergraduate years ignited a love of adventure, so in graduate
school with my first exposure to taxonomic botany I was hooked
on botanical fieldwork. A Master's study of water-lilies throughout
Alabama focused my attention on the genus Nymphaea, which, not
having been studied much since Conard's monograph in 1905, was
an excellent subject for new discoveries. I therefore began,
as a doctoral project, the study of the little-known tropical
American subgenus Hydrocallis. Five new species were brought
to light during this study, with fieldwork taking me to Mexico,
Venezuela, Ecuador, Brazil, and Argentina and visits to several
European herbaria as well to study prior collections.
John collecting in Brazil
Water-lilies, being among the oldest of flowering plants
and nearly worldwide in their distribution, have been and will
continue to be a subject of fascination. I am encouraged by the
number of researchers currently interested in Nymphaea. My own
long-term ambition is the preparation of a new taxonomic monograph
on the genus, which should keep me busy for years to come. Field
study of Nymphaea is an ever-consuming pastime, for it seems
that no matter where one goes, a species is there to be studied
and appreciated. The aesthetic appeal of water-lilies alone would
be sufficient to sustain my interest in the absence of any scientific
curiosity. For in my view, nothing can compare, in its sheer
beauty and serenity, to a pristine natural population of water-lilies.
GRIN Taxonomy Home Page
With my move to Maryland in 1984, most of these earlier cultures
soon perished due to inadequate maintenance facilities. The USDA
position brought a change from a field- or laboratory-oriented
botanist studying water-lilies to a literature- or database-orientation
focusing on agricultural plants. While my interest in water-lilies
necessarily took a backseat to this other activity, it has survived
due to occasional field expeditions, study of species in cultivation,
and periodic contributions to water-lily taxonomy, such as preparation
of the treatment for the Flora of North America. Most species
have now been restored to cultivation from subsequent expeditions
or exchanges with botanical colleagues. About 35 species of the
ca. 45 known species are now in cultivation, representing some
50 wild collections.
John collecting in Guyana
The Gospel According To
Since this article was written, some of the databases
I "trawled" have been consolidated and queries can
be addressed to the International Plant Names Index