New plant discovery doffs cap to 20th century greats

Scientists in the UK collaborating with colleagues in Vietnam have made the rare discovery of a previously unknown plant group or “genus” and, within it, five species of delicate flowers that are all new to science. Even more remarkably one of these specimens was collected in 1933 but has only now been classified and scientifically described at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE). Now, the new genus has been named in honour of two of the 20th century’s most prolific botanists.

All the specimens are grouped as part of Gesneriaceae - the African violet family –  and were collected over the years in a little-studied area of southern Vietnam. They then lay, without their importance being recognised, in herbaria - repositories of preserved and labelled plant specimens - until RBGE-based scientists were able to examine the collections in more detail, incorporate evidence from molecular data, and prove without doubt that they represented a brand new group of plants within the wider family.

The new genus has been named Billolivia in honour of two of the most prolific botanists of the 20th Century, the late Brian Laurence Burtt - known as Bill - and Olive Hilliard, both of whom were based at RBGE and specialised in the research of the African violet family. Between them, Burtt and Hilliard described hundreds of new species.

Paying tribute to the international collaboration behind this latest research, RBGE Director of Science, Professor Pete Hollingsworth, underscored the need for continued taxonomic advancements: “Discovering new species is important. But, finding entirely new genera is particularly exciting. The Gesneriaceae family contains many indicator species for intact ecosystems which are useful for setting conservation priorities. Many species are also of horticultural interest,” he said.

“The rate of habitat destruction in the tropics is proceeding at an unprecedented rate and one of these new species has already been designated as ‘Critically Endangered’. This is a race against time to discover and understand the world’s biodiversity before it is lost: knowing what species exist – and where they occur – is a pre-requisite to conserving them. This work could not have been done without strong collaborative links with botanists and collectors in Vietnam working closely with the team in Edinburgh.”

Part of the flora of Vietnam and its neighbours, Cambodia and Laos, is being written in Edinburgh and this research is an important contribution to an understanding of plant diversity in this high biodiversity region.

The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh is a charity (registration number SC007983)