What Does A Botanist Do: Learn About Careers In Plant Science

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By: Laura Miller

Whether you’re a high school student, a displaced homemaker,or looking for a career change, you might consider the field of botany.Opportunities for careers in plant science are rising and many botanists makean above average income.

What is a Botanist?

Botany is the scientific study of plants and a botanist is aperson who studies plants. Plant life can vary from the smallest one celledlife forms to the tallest redwoodtrees. Thus, the field is widely varied and the job possibilities areendless.

What Does a Botanist Do?

The majority of botanists specialize in a particular area ofbotany. Examples of various areas include the study of marine phytoplanktons,agricultural crops, or the specialized plants of the Amazon rainforest.Botanists can have many job titles and work in many industries. Here is a smallsampling:

  • Mycologist – studies fungi
  • Wetland conservationist – works to preserve swamps, marshes, and bogs
  • Agronomist – conduct tests to determine the best practices for soil management
  • Forest ecologist – studies the ecosystems in forests

Botanist vs. Horticulturist

You may be wondering how a botanist differs from ahorticulturist. Botany is a pure science in which botanists study plant life.They do research and may perform tests, derive theories, and make predictions.They are often employed by universities, arboretums, or work for industrialmanufacturers like biological supply houses, pharmaceutical companies, orpetrochemical plants.

Horticulture is a branch or field of botany that deals withedible and ornamental plants. It’s an applied science. Horticulturalists don’tdo research; instead, they use or “apply” the scientific research performed bybotanists.

Why is Plant Science Important?

Plants are all around us. They provide many of the rawmaterials that are used in manufacturing industries. Without plants we wouldn’thave food to eat, fabric for clothing, wood for buildings, or medicines to keepus healthy.

Botanical research not only helps industries provide thesenecessities, but the field also focuses on how to obtain plant-based rawmaterials economically and in environmentally-friendly ways. Without botanists,the quality of our air, water, and natural resources would be compromised.

We may not realize it or even appreciate their efforts, butbotanists play an essential role in our daily lives. Becoming a botanistrequires a minimum of a bachelor’s degree in the field of botany. Manybotanists further their education and go on to receive their masters ordoctorate degrees.

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A horticulturist is someone who uses scientific knowledge to cultivate and propagate plants, and then uses this knowledge to provide technical information to fruit, vegetable and flower growers as well as farmers. A horticulturist will conduct pest and disease investigations and experiment with improved varieties of plants with greater resistance to disease. They will sometimes work in the field of landscaping design to create gardens, recreational areas, and parks, with the goal of preserving our natural resources. They may also work in the mining industry, where they assist in regenerating degraded land.

In this article:

Historical background

Theophrastus, a Greek philosopher who first studied with Plato and then became a disciple of Aristotle, is credited with founding botany. Only two of an estimated 200 botanical treatises written by him are known to science: originally written in Greek about 300 bce , they have survived in the form of Latin manuscripts, De causis plantarum and De historia plantarum. His basic concepts of morphology, classification, and the natural history of plants, accepted without question for many centuries, are now of interest primarily because of Theophrastus’s independent and philosophical viewpoint.

Pedanius Dioscorides, a Greek botanist of the 1st century ce , was the most important botanical writer after Theophrastus. In his major work, an herbal in Greek, he described some 600 kinds of plants, with comments on their habit of growth and form as well as on their medicinal properties. Unlike Theophrastus, who classified plants as trees, shrubs, and herbs, Dioscorides grouped his plants under three headings: as aromatic, culinary, and medicinal. His herbal, unique in that it was the first treatment of medicinal plants to be illustrated, remained for about 15 centuries the last word on medical botany in Europe.

From the 2nd century bce to the 1st century ce , a succession of Roman writers—Cato the Elder, Varro, Virgil, and Columella—prepared Latin manuscripts on farming, gardening, and fruit growing but showed little evidence of the spirit of scientific inquiry for its own sake that was so characteristic of Theophrastus. In the 1st century ce , Pliny the Elder, though no more original than his Roman predecessors, seemed more industrious as a compiler. His Historia naturalis—an encyclopaedia of 37 volumes, compiled from some 2,000 works representing 146 Roman and 327 Greek authors—has 16 volumes devoted to plants. Although uncritical and containing much misinformation, this work contains much information otherwise unavailable, since most of the volumes to which he referred have been destroyed.

The printing press revolutionized the availability of all types of literature, including that of plants. In the 15th and 16th centuries, many herbals were published with the purpose of describing plants useful in medicine. Written by physicians and medically oriented botanists, the earliest herbals were based largely on the work of Dioscorides and to a lesser extent on Theophrastus, but gradually they became the product of original observation. The increasing objectivity and originality of herbals through the decades is clearly reflected in the improved quality of the woodcuts prepared to illustrate these books.

In 1552 an illustrated manuscript on Mexican plants, written in Aztec, was translated into Latin by Badianus other similar manuscripts known to have existed seem to have disappeared. Whereas herbals in China date back much further than those in Europe, they have become known only recently and so have contributed little to the progress of Western botany.

The invention of the optical lens during the 16th century and the development of the compound microscope about 1590 opened an era of rich discovery about plants prior to that time, all observations by necessity had been made with the unaided eye. The botanists of the 17th century turned away from the earlier emphasis on medical botany and began to describe all plants, including the many new ones that were being introduced in large numbers from Asia, Africa, and America. Among the most prominent botanists of this era was Gaspard Bauhin, who for the first time developed, in a tentative way, many botanical concepts still held as valid.

In 1665 Robert Hooke published, under the title Micrographia, the results of his microscopic observations on several plant tissues. He is remembered as the coiner of the word “cell,” referring to the cavities he observed in thin slices of cork his observation that living cells contain sap and other materials too often has been forgotten. In the following decade, Nehemiah Grew and Marcello Malpighi founded plant anatomy in 1671 they communicated the results of microscopic studies simultaneously to the Royal Society of London, and both later published major treatises.

Experimental plant physiology began with the brilliant work of Stephen Hales, who published his observations on the movements of water in plants under the title Vegetable Staticks (1727). His conclusions on the mechanics of water transpiration in plants are still valid, as is his discovery—at the time a startling one—that air contributes something to the materials produced by plants. In 1774, Joseph Priestley showed that plants exposed to sunlight give off oxygen, and Jan Ingenhousz demonstrated, in 1779, that plants in the dark give off carbon dioxide. In 1804 Nicolas de Saussure demonstrated convincingly that plants in sunlight absorb water and carbon dioxide and increase in weight, as had been reported by Hales nearly a century earlier.

The widespread use of the microscope by plant morphologists provided a turning point in the 18th century—botany became largely a laboratory science. Until the invention of simple lenses and the compound microscope, the recognition and classification of plants were, for the most part, based on such large morphological aspects of the plant as size, shape, and external structure of leaves, roots, and stems. Such information was also supplemented by observations on more subjective qualities of plants, such as edibility and medicinal uses.

In 1753 Linnaeus published his master work, Species Plantarum, which contains careful descriptions of 6,000 species of plants from all of the parts of the world known at the time. In this work, which is still the basic reference work for modern plant taxonomy, Linnaeus established the practice of binomial nomenclature—that is, the denomination of each kind of plant by two words, the genus name and the specific name, as Rosa canina, the dog rose. Binomial nomenclature had been introduced much earlier by some of the herbalists, but it was not generally accepted most botanists continued to use cumbersome formal descriptions, consisting of many words, to name a plant. Linnaeus for the first time put the contemporary knowledge of plants into an orderly system, with full acknowledgment to past authors, and produced a nomenclatural methodology so useful that it has not been greatly improved upon. Linnaeus also introduced a “sexual system” of plants, by which the numbers of flower parts—especially stamens, which produce male sex cells, and styles, which are prolongations of plant ovaries that receive pollen grains—became useful tools for easy identification of plants. This simple system, though effective, had many imperfections. Other classification systems, in which as many characters as possible were considered in order to determine the degree of relationship, were developed by other botanists indeed, some appeared before the time of Linnaeus. The application of the concepts of Charles Darwin (on evolution) and Gregor Mendel (on genetics) to plant taxonomy has provided insights into the process of evolution and the production of new species.

Systematic botany now uses information and techniques from all the subdisciplines of botany, incorporating them into one body of knowledge. Phytogeography (the biogeography of plants), plant ecology, population genetics, and various techniques applicable to cells—cytotaxonomy and cytogenetics—have contributed greatly to the current status of systematic botany and have to some degree become part of it. More recently, phytochemistry, computerized statistics, and fine-structure morphology have been added to the activities of systematic botany.

The 20th century saw an enormous increase in the rate of growth of research in botany and the results derived therefrom. The combination of more botanists, better facilities, and new technologies, all with the benefit of experience from the past, resulted in a series of new discoveries, new concepts, and new fields of botanical endeavour. Some important examples are mentioned below.

New and more precise information is being accumulated concerning the process of photosynthesis, especially with reference to energy-transfer mechanisms.

The discovery of the pigment phytochrome, which constitutes a previously unknown light-detecting system in plants, has greatly increased knowledge of the influence of both internal and external environment on the germination of seeds and the time of flowering.

Several types of plant hormones (internal regulatory substances) have been discovered—among them auxin, gibberellin, and kinetin—whose interactions provide a new concept of the way in which the plant functions as a unit.

The discovery that plants need certain trace elements usually found in the soil has made it possible to cultivate areas lacking some essential element by adding it to the deficient soil.

The development of genetical methods for the control of plant heredity has made possible the generation of improved and enormously productive crop plants.

The development of radioactive-carbon dating of plant materials as old as 50,000 years is useful to the paleobotanist, the ecologist, the archaeologist, and especially to the climatologist, who now has a better basis on which to predict climates of future centuries.

The discovery of alga-like and bacteria-like fossils in Precambrian rocks has pushed the estimated origin of plants on Earth to 3,500,000,000 years ago.

The isolation of antibiotic substances from fungi and bacteria-like organisms has provided control over many bacterial diseases and has contributed biochemical information of basic scientific importance as well.

The use of phylogenetic data to establish a consensus on the taxonomy and evolutionary lineages of angiosperms (flowering plants) is coordinated through an international effort known as the Angiosperm Phylogeny Group.

Why the interest in plants?

Each botanist will have their own story about how they became interested in plants.

Plants are all around us. They underpin all life on Earth. In particular, plants provide two of the essentials of human life. They provide all our food (either directly or indirectly), and they provide the oxygen we breathe.

Plants also play a role in many other aspects of our life. They provide many of our medicines, are involved in regulating the water cycle and are involved in storing carbon. Plants also provide habitats and food for other living organisms. They provide fibres for our clothes (such as cotton and bamboo) and wood for our buildings and furniture. They provide industrial products (rubber and cork, for example) and are a source of fuel (wood, coal, gas and biodiesel). Plants also create aesthetically pleasing indoor and outdoor environments.

Botany remains an essential study. Plants have a very visible economic role in New Zealand in agriculture and horticulture. We are also realising more about the importance of biodiversity and want to know more about plants that live on Earth. Botany provides tools for investigating and understanding the role of plants in our world.


Related Links


Careers in Botany, Botanical Society of America


Plant Education, Teaching and Outreach, Botanical Society of America

Botany is the scientific study of plants, or multicellular organisms, that carry on photosynthesis. As a branch of biology, botany sometimes is referred to as plant science or plant biology. Botany includes a wide range of scientific subdisciplines that study the structure, growth, reproduction, metabolism, development, diseases, ecology and evolution of plants. The study of plants is important because they are a fundamental part of life on Earth, generating food, oxygen, fuel, medicine and fibers that allow other life forms to exist. Through photosynthesis they absorb carbon dioxide, a waste product generated by most animals and a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming.

As with other forms of life, plants can be studied at many different levels. One is the molecular level, which is concerned with the biochemical, molecular and genetic functions of plants. Another is the cellular, tissue and organelle (a discrete structure of a cell that has a specialized function) level, which studies the anatomy and physiology of plants and the community and population level, which involves interactions within a species, with other species and with the environment.

Historically, botanists studied any living being that was not an animal. Although fungi, algae and bacteria now are members of other kingdoms, according to the currently accepted classification system, they usually still are studied in introductory botany classes.

The ancient Greeks were among the first to write about plants in a scientific way. In the fifth century B.C.E., Empedocles believed plants not only had a soul, like animals, but also had reason and common sense. Aristotle believed plants ranked between animals and inanimate objects. Aristotle’s pupil Theophrastus wrote two books about plants that still were in use in the 15th century. The Swedish physician-turned-botanist Carl Linné is considered the father of the systematic naming system (nomenclature), which he invented in the 18th century and still is used to give scientific names to all species, plant and otherwise.

Plants always have been convenient organisms to study scientifically because they did not pose the same ethical dilemmas as the study of animals or humans. The Austrian monk Gregor Mendel wrote the first laws of inheritance, a set of primary tenets relating to the transmission of hereditary characteristics from parent organisms to their children, in the 1850s after crossing pea plants in his garden. Nearly a century later, Barbara McClintock discovered “jumping genes” and other details about inheritance by studying maize plants.

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