Kalaheo, Hawaii (April 5, 2022)—The National Tropical Botanical Garden (NTBG) has awarded Dr. Sandra Knapp, a tropical botanist and researcher at the Natural History Museum, London the 2022 David Fairchild Medal for Plant Exploration. The medal has been awarded annually since 1999 to individuals who have demonstrated service to humanity in exploring remote areas of the world to advance plant discovery, the cultivation of new and important plants, and the conservation of rare or endangered plant species.
The medal was presented to Dr. Knapp on April 6 in a ceremony at The Kampong, NTBG’s garden located in Coconut Grove, Florida and former residence of renowned explorer and botanist Dr. David G. Fairchild.
Dr. Knapp is best known as one of the world’s leading specialists in the taxonomy, crop diversity, and ethnobotanic uses of the Solanaceae, a family that includes tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants, tobacco, and mandrakes.
Born in Oakland, California and raised in New Mexico, Sandra Knapp was introduced to field botany as an undergraduate at Pomona College in the 1970s. It only took one visit to the desert with a microscope in hand for her to realize that she wanted to dedicate her life to fieldwork and the study of plants. Sandra Knapp went on to study at the University of California, Irvine (’78-’79) before earning a PhD. from Cornell University (’85). Dr. Knapp’s doctoral dissertation was titled A Revision of Solanum section Geminata. She studied under the late Dr. M. D. Whalen who she thanks for first suggesting that she study Solanum.
Upon graduating, Dr. Knapp taught biology, taxonomy, and phytogeography as a teaching assistant at Cornell before embarking on four decades of field research, primarily in Central and South America as well as in China and Uganda.
In 1992, Dr. Knapp joined the Natural History Museum as a senior scientific officer in the Botany Department. Her career with the museum has continued and evolved from research botanist to individual merit researcher (level 2) today. She has also served as head of the museum’s Plants Division (2012-2019).
Over the course of her career, Dr. Knapp has contributed to Flora Mesoamericana and is the founder and curator of the online resource Solanaceae Source. She has described over 100 new plant species, authored more than 270 peer-reviewed scientific articles, and written, edited, or contributed to 30 scientific and popular books about plant exploration, discovery, and botany. She is the author of the forthcoming book In the Name of Plants: From Attenborough to Washington, the People Behind Plant Names (University of Chicago Press). From 2018 to 2022, Dr. Knapp has served as the president of the Linnean Society of London.
Dr. Knapp has broad experience as a field explorer, research botanist, taxonomist, educator, and active member of numerous academic and scientific bodies including appointments to the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland, Fauna and Flora International, the Field Museum of Natural History, the Harvard University Herbaria external review board, and others.
She is also an enthusiastic science communicator, editor, and author who believes that all people have the potential to be naturalists by being keen observers and thinkers engaged with the natural world and their own surroundings.
As an avid public speaker, Dr. Knapp has lectured widely for public and professional audiences and on panels for the United Nations Climate Conference, the Natural History Museum, the Royal Institution, the BBC, and other scientific and educational venues.
Dr. Knapp is a firm believer in initiating conversations about science and being open-minded to new ideas and different perspectives. She says science communications is about “having a conversation and arriving sometimes at a place that you the scientist didn’t think you would arrive at.” The important thing, she says, is to start that conversation.
One of Dr. Knapp’s colleagues, Dr. Jan Salick, senior curator emerita with the Missouri Botanical Garden, described her as a “most valued friend.” She recalled meeting Sandra Knapp while both were
attending graduate school at Cornell University. On one occasion, Dr. Salick invited Dr. Knapp to join her on a collecting expedition in the jungles of the Amazon headwaters. Dr. Salick recalls how despite both of them being pregnant at the time, they paddled on rafts and dugout canoes down Rio Palcazú and its tributaries, interviewed shamans and Indigenous women about traditional knowledge of cassava (yuca), and how Dr. Knapp found a new species of Solanum on that same trip.
Dr. Knapp was nominated for the Fairchild Medal by NTBG’s science and conservation director Dr. Nina Rønsted who described her as “passionately and deeply engaged in a plethora of areas and international organizations devoted to plant systematics, fieldwork, crop science, and more.”
Dr. Rønsted called Dr. Knapp an “inspiration to a generation of scientists, students, practitioners, and plant enthusiasts,” adding that she has contributed to a greater understanding of the importance of saving the world’s plants.
Upon learning that she had been named as recipient of the 2022 Fairchild Medal, Dr. Knapp admitted her surprise, calling the award an “incredible honor.”
The David Fairchild Medal for Plant Exploration is named for one of the most influential horticulturists and plant collectors in American history. Dr. Fairchild devoted his life to plant exploration, searching the world for useful plants suitable for introduction into the country. As an early “Indiana Jones” type explorer, he conducted field trips throughout Malaysia, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, China, Japan, the South Pacific, the Caribbean, South America, the Middle East, and East and South Africa during the late 1800s and early 1900s.
These explorations resulted in the introduction of many tropical plants of economic importance to the U.S., including sorghum, nectarines, avocadoes, hops, unique species of bamboo, dates, and varieties of mangoes.
In addition, as director of the Office of Foreign Seed and Plant Introduction of the U.S. Department of Agriculture during the early 20th Century, Dr. Fairchild was instrumental in the introduction of more than 5,000 selected varieties and species of useful plants, such as Durum wheat, Japanese varieties of rice, Sudan grass, Chinese soybeans, Chinese elms, persimmons, and pistachios.
Fairchild and his wife, Marian Bell Fairchild, daughter of inventor Alexander Graham Bell, purchased property in South Florida in 1916 and created both a home and an “introduction garden” for plant species found on his expeditions. He named the property “The Kampong,” the Malay word for “village.”
The tropical species Fairchild collected from Southeast Asia in the 1930s and 1940s are still part of the heritage collections of The Kampong. The property is the only U.S. mainland garden owned by NTBG, which has four gardens and five preserves in Hawaii. The organization is dedicated to conservation, research, and education relating to the world’s rare and endangered tropical plants.
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National Tropical Botanical Garden (ntbg.org) is a not-for-profit, non-governmental institution with nearly 2,000 acres of gardens and preserves in Hawaii and Florida. The institution’s mission is to enrich life through discovery, scientific research, conservation, and education by perpetuating the survival of plants, ecosystems, and cultural knowledge of tropical regions. NTBG is supported primarily through donations, grants, and memberships.