David Jobbins reveals a project to update and expand electronically a seminal work on European flora.
A new taxonomy of European and Mediterranean plants is being planned by botanists across Europe. The project stems from the growing need for a revision of the Flora Europaea, which brought together national flora across Europe in a serial publication from the 1960s through to its completion in 1980. Updating it will be a pan-European project also extending into Africa, and there are hopes that the EU's Framework 5 programme for research will be among the funders.
Stephen Jury, lecturer in botany at the University of Reading, said: "In the past 20 years there has been a terrific rise in botany in Europe, particularly in Greece, the Balkans and Iberia. Southern Europe has a particularly rich flora."
The result is that the consensus established by the Flora Europaea has been overtaken by the increase in knowledge of European plant taxonomy and of individual plant groups. But at the same time conservation and legislative pressure make the need for an agreed taxonomic framework all the greater.
The Flora was the first standardised nomenclature of European plants but is both increasingly out of date and limited in its geographic range. Yet despite the revised version of the first volume published in 1993, which included almost 10 per cent more species than the original, revisions to the other four volumes were put on hold.
Instead the Linnaean Society, sponsor of the original Flora, decided to mark its bicentennial by exploring the possibilities of a more broadly based project drawing heavily on information and communications technologies.
Project Sisyphus - a working title which rather misleadingly suggests a lack of enthusiasm for a seemingly endless task - was launched at a workshop in Palermo last summer.
Its principal aim is to organise, coordinate and make available in a collaborative electronic mode, information on the plants of the Euro-Mediterranean region against an evaluated taxonomic core that is periodically reviewed.
This will build a single source and system for obtaining, through linked databases, information for a wide variety of users. Planners, ecologists, conservationists, environmental legislators, protected area managers, genetic resource managers, agronomists, horticulturists, industrialists and economists face a disjointed mass of data on the biology, distribution, phytochemistry, uses and conservation of European plant species. But it is not only botanical knowledge that has moved on since the Flora's publication. "We have followed events in relation to the former USSR and are watching the situation in the former Yugoslavia with interest and trepidation," Dr Jury, secretary of the Sisyphus steering committee, said.
By taking on the MedChecklist project for the Mediterranean basin, the scope of the project has also been extended to North Africa - specifically Morocco, Algeria, Libya, and Egypt. Russian botanists are also determined to add the Caucasus and even the Novaya Zemlya peninsular on the edge of the Arctic Circle. Also included will be the Atlantic islands generally regarded as part of Europe - Madeira, the Canaries and the Azores, which were also in the Flora Europaea.
The conservation implications of a consolidated database are far-reaching. Dr Jury quotes the example of two populations of fir tree, one in Morocco and the other in Southern Spain, historically regarded as separate - and equally rare - species. But if they are found to be conspecific, conservation priorities are altered, he says.
The MedChecklist project was stalled for several years but has been given fresh impetus and has now published three volumes with a fourth on the way.
The work has been sponsored so far by the Linnaean Society and the Flora Europaea Trust, but organisers hope that the Framework 5 research programme may open the door to EU funding.
The scheme is supported by Optima, the Organisation for the Phyto-Taxonomic Investigation of the Mediterranean Area, which represents 25 countries. In a parallel development supported by Optima, plans are advancing for the establishment of the Herbarium Mediterranean at the University of Palermo, in Sicily.
One of the neo-classical buildings in the university's botanic garden is in the process of conversion to hold the collections. Botanic garden director Pietro Mazzola, of the university's school of botanical science, says: "The aim of the programme is to collect recent material to be studied with modern techniques and checked against material which is already held in the collections."
"Chosen single areas are explored year by year and an international group of Optima members will collect and study," Professor Mazzola said. "This material will year by year be sent to the herbarium."
Each year between 2,000 and 3,000 specimens are collected.