35,000 plant specimens gathered over the past 200 years remain unclassified

Botanists estimate there are 70,000 species of flowering plant still waiting to be identified. They also suspect that about half of those were already found up to 200 years ago, and nobody has gotten around to identifying them yet.

This is what happens when there are way, way more plants than any human could ever hope to classify, particularly in an age before computers. For centuries, botanists have sought out any and all potential new plants, collecting and cataloging them in a special storage facility known as a herbarium. There are now about 3,000 herbaria all over the world, and each one contains several thousand specimens.

In order to build up collections of such size, botanists have sometimes had to focus on collecting and leave cataloging for another day. The only question is when that other day comes. According to a new study by Oxford's Dr. Robert Scotland, only 16% of plants are described in their first five years after collection, and a quarter of all plant species take over fifty years to be described. The record seems to be one particular plant species that was finally cataloged a whopping 210 years after its initial discovery.

Based on their figures, Scotland and his colleagues estimate over 35,000 new species should be discovered in existing herbarium collections between now and 2045. Botanists currently expect to find another 70,000 new species of flowering plants, so half their work should already be done for them. Indeed, Scotland says this reveals that rooting through the existing archives will be just as important as heading back out into the field:

"There are certainly places in the world which are under-collected where there's many things to be found. Botanists visit a particular rainforest, for example, and come back with a haul of species.

"[But] out of that 70,000 species still to be found, more than half of those have already been collected in the world herbaria and are waiting for someone with the relevant expertise and time to say 'that's a new one'."

This is also good news for anyone looking to discover their very own species. No longer will you need to plan an expensive expedition to the rainforest to find a new species - you just need to find your nearest herbarium and ask very nicely whether you can have a rummage through their archives. With any luck, you'll be rolling in new plants in no time at all.

[BBC News]