Since 1999, the National Tropical Botanical Garden has recognized exceptional botanists, horticulturists, and explorers by awarding them the David Fairchild Medal for Plant Exploration.
On April 6, 2022, Dr. Sandra Knapp of the Natural History Museum (London), will be presented with the medal at a ceremony at NTBG’s Miami garden, The Kampong. Dr. Knapp is best known as a specialist in the taxonomy, crop diversity, and ethnobotanic uses of the Solanaceae, a family that includes tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants, tobacco, and mandrakes.
Dr. Knapp has over four decades of experience botanizing in Central and South America as well as Africa and China and is a contributor to Flora Mesoamericana and the founder/curator of Solanaceae Source. She has described over 100 new plant species, authored more than 270 peer-reviewed scientific articles, and has written, edited, or contributed to 30 scientific and popular books about plant exploration, discovery, and botany. From 2018 to 2022, Dr. Knapp served as the president of the Linnean Society of London.
Dr. Knapp spoke with NTBG in January from her home in London. An edited and condensed version of that conversation follows below.
NTBG: Congratulations on being named recipient of the David Fairchild Medal for Plant Exploration.
Sandra Knapp: Thank you. It was a real surprise. I thought, “What? This is crazy! There must be some mistake.” But it’s an incredible honor because David Fairchild was an extraordinary person.
You’ve spent much of your career studying Solanaceae. Why have you focused on this group of plants?
At Cornell University, my major professor Michael D. Whalen said I should study the genus Solanum and go to the tropics. I wanted to go to the desert, but I went to Costa Rica and that was it. I was completely hooked. I fell in love with the tropics and the wonderful, massive, incredible diversity that’s all around. I started looking at solanums and there were lots that didn’t have names but they were all clearly different. Nobody had worked on the taxonomy of them so I thought, “OK, maybe I can do Solanum.” There was no looking back. I just got deeper and deeper into Solanum.
What exactly attracted you to this family of plants?
The Solanaceae are amazing because they’re well-known both as things that we love to eat— tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants—but also as plants that can kill us, like nightshades and tobacco. They are inextricably linked with people. It’s just fascinating because people have found uses for so many Solanaceae. You can pick fruits and eat them. But all of these poisons, medicines, and psychoactive drugs—that requires a certain amount of experimentation which is pretty dangerous, really. It is absolutely fascinating that within this one small family there are all these uses.
The other thing that is amazing about Solanaceae is that it’s a medium-sized family that only has about 4,000 species, it’s not a monster like the daisies or the orchids. But half the species diversity of the family is composed of a single genus, Solanum, which is one of the top ten most species-rich genera of flowering plants. That’s pretty amazing. It’s one of maybe ten or fifteen genera which have more than a thousand species. Solanum, at our current estimate, will soon have 1,250 species. One of the things that grabbed me is—why are there so many of these species of Solanum? To even begin to answer that question, you need to figure out what the species are and nobody had done that since the 19th century. People keep asking “haven’t you figured it out yet?” My answer is, no, we’re getting there though.
Can you talk about the loss of biodiversity as it relates to Solanaceae?
The majority of species diversity of Solanum is in South America. So you would expect that the highest speciation rates, the highest diversification rates, would be there as well. Well, it turns out it’s the exact opposite. The highest diversification rates are in places like Australia and Africa, and they seem to be correlated with the Miocene aridification of those continents. The changing landscape helped Solanum in those areas invade new territories and have explosive speciation.
Climate change and environmental change can work both ways. Aridification is often bad for plants, but it depends on the plant. The lineage of Solanum that made it to Australia is very dry- adapted and it just went berserk and diversified. Still not as many species as in South America, but they’re all each other’s closest relatives. Then there are other species which have very narrow ranges, in the páramos and other high areas in the Andes, where the tree line is going up and so those species are at risk from climate change. But actually, the biggest driver of change is us, it’s humans—our modification of the landscape.
What about the loss of traditional plant knowledge?
A lot of the traditional knowledge about Solanaceae is actually global traditional knowledge now because these are world-wide crops and much is widely known. There is traditional knowledge about Solanaceae that I know nothing about. I am sure that there is also traditional knowledge that is held by very few people. But as Indigenous peoples become threatened themselves, and as languages become threatened as well, a lot of that plant knowledge is bound up in the language and when language becomes at risk, then the knowledge becomes at risk.
The coronavirus pandemic has had a profoundly harmful impact on people around the world. It has also disrupted so much of our personal and professional lives. Can you find any kind of silver lining in this?
One of the silver linings is that with regards to herbaria and collections, it’s becoming clearer that if your collections are online, people will use them. That’s always kind of been true, but when we’re all stuck at home, trying to do our work at home, having literature online through the Biodiversity Heritage Library and having herbarium specimen images online is an absolute godsend. That didn’t come with the pandemic, but I think the pandemic has provided impetus for people to accelerate digital access.
Regarding the pandemic, as it relates to the understanding and the importance of preserving plants, how do you make a connection?
I actually think that the pandemic, and the fact that it is the result of an interaction between humans and the natural world, makes it ever more important that we study, understand, and preserve the natural world so that there are places for nature to thrive. Human beings are an invasive mammalian weed. We are the epitome of a weedy species. We go everywhere. We grow everywhere. We reproduce fast. We can adapt to all kinds of climates and places. We’re the most successful weed on the planet. If you think about human beings as a weed, weeds are a threat. Human beings are a threat. And when weeds come in contact with particular pests or can pick up genes that are problematic, then it becomes a problem. The same is true with viruses and us. This is hardly a surprise, to be honest.
Do you think scientific organizations, botanical gardens, museums, or the media in general are doing a good job of communicating the importance of science, and plants in particular?
I think this is one of the things that we all struggle with, and all of us are trying and doing as best we can, but I think there are many things we could do better. One of those is having a conversation rather than just giving information, because bringing people along is about acknowledging that they have views that might be different from our own and being open to that conversation. One thing that often happens in science education is people think of it as a one-way street. “We will communicate our science to this public and then they will understand.” Well, it doesn’t work like that. It’s much more about having a conversation and arriving sometimes at a place that you, the scientist, didn’t think about at the onset.
Also, being willing to say that you’re wrong or that you don’t understand or don’t know is crucial. I think as scientists—and I know I do this—it’s almost as a knee-jerk thing to avoid this, I worry about saying something because I might be wrong. But actually, that doesn’t matter. The really important thing is to start a conversation, because that’s where you begin to look at the world through somebody else’s eyes and that then changes your own world view.
Science itself can’t exist in a vacuum because science is part of society. It doesn’t exist as separate from society. Some people might consider advocacy about climate change to be political. What’s considered political is really, in a way, a matter of opinion. Scientists are part of society, and they need to be concerned with societal issues. And sometimes it can be quite uncomfortable.
Can you talk about how you communicate science at the Natural History Museum?
I am proud of my own institution for creating a strategy which is about creating advocates for the planet. Yes, we do good science and yes have great collections—but our mission is to create advocates for the planet. We use our collections and the science we do with them to do that. People who are vocal supporters of the natural world is our long-term goal.
You mean to get everybody involved?
Everybody’s a natural historian, really. Everybody is interested in pebbles and things that they pick up as they walk around their neighborhoods. But it can be frowned upon in scientific circles because it’s not “scientific.” But actually, it is scientific. If you go out in the forest and collect a plant, you make a hypothesis that it might be ‘species X’ and then you use evidence to disprove that or perhaps that evidence supports your idea. Somehow this has been lost, the fact that natural history—just observing and documenting the world around us—is hypothesis-driven.
You are just the third woman to receive the Fairchild Medal. What are your thoughts on this imbalance?
I’ve been compiling the gender statistics for the medals for the Linnean Society, it’s actually quite shocking. Mostly men get nominated so it’s not really surprising that medals often go to men, but why is that? I don’t know. The times are changing. I am the third female president of the Linnean Society which dates from 1788 so I am the 53rd president, or something like that. But only the third woman, but my successor is also a woman, so change is happening. What I think will be really interesting is if we can look back in twenty years’ time and see if the graph of medal awards changes. What we should be is fifty-fifty, really. Excellence doesn’t have gender.
Can you talk about how field work has changed since you first started as a botanist?
People don’t go in the field by themselves anymore. We go into the field with a colleague or with our local counterparts, say from an institution from South America or in Africa. I think that’s a really good thing because when you do, relationships begin with local scientists from those countries which then levels up science and allows people to share in a much more equitable way than happened in the past. Parachute science, where collectors and explorers went in and took, as happened in colonial times, certainly should be a thing of the past.
Last question. Do you think the botany and natural history of Central and South America offer an avenue for increased interest and a greater understanding for that part of the world?
Yes, the Americas are an absolutely extraordinary set of continents and understanding their sheer diversity is part and parcel of understanding the world. Many of our crops come from Eurasia, but others are American in origin. Thinking about centers of crop plant origin is interesting in this context because if you look at crop plants that are essential to diets in the United States, they’ve all—except for the sunflower—come from outside of North America. If you took everything that didn’t originate in the United States, you’d be left with very little; David Fairchild had a real hand in this diversity of crops in the United States that now seems to be integral to US agriculture.
Globalization is often perceived as a really bad thing, but it has gotten us to where we are and it has been happening for a long time—long before European colonization of the Americas. For me it presents a huge and uncomfortable paradox. How can we accept the fact that the foods that we eat, the food that we love, the foods that we think of as being indigenous to ourselves, actually come from somewhere else, but then, at the same time, not accept people from those other places. Why is it “food good, people bad”? It’s very Animal Farm-y and kind of Orwellian in a slightly odd way.
Our diets across the globe are becoming much more diverse so we’re eating lots of different things. But we’re all, across the world, eating much more of the same things. So regionalization of diets is disappearing but we’re all eating more different things in part because of the ease of transport and global markets and all this other stuff. It may all change if we’re unable or unwilling to transport snow peas from Kenya or cherries and apples from Chile in the non-apple season for the northern hemisphere, as global events and our concern for the climate coincide.