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U.S. Botanic Garden celebrates 200 years, continues mission to save endangered plants

Posted at 12:55 PM, Feb 28, 2020

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Amid the bright orchids of the U.S. Botanic Garden sits a 200-year history of protecting America’s most fragile plants.

“We're a living repository for rare and endangered plants,” said Saharah Moon Chapotin, director of the garden.

The U.S. Botanic Garden is the oldest one in the country, an idea envisioned by George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. It’s about to celebrate its 200th year. About 60,000 plants, lying within several acres in the heart of Washington, D.C.

Conservation at the garden is always in season.

“Many of our plants are rare and endangered and we are providing a home for them,” Chapotin said.

Here in the U.S. there are 1,300 species that are considered threatened or endangered. Nearly 20 percent of those are plants adding up to hundreds of flora on the brink.

Some already fell off the cliff, like Hawaii’s “Cabbage on a Stick.” Because of overdevelopment, the insect that pollinated it disappeared and in 2014, the plant went extinct in the wild, too.

There are others endangered, too, like a cactus from Arizona and bushes which are native to Florida. Endangered plants don’t always get the kind of attention endangered animals do.

“Often people do think about animals they have faces and they're sort of cute,” USBG deputy director Susan Pell. “So, we kind of think people generally can sort of sympathize with them a little bit more, than maybe with a plant that they're not familiar with.”

At the garden, they emphasize how much plants are tied to the habitat of endangered animals, at risk from invasive species, development and climate change.

“They're really interconnected and so I think plants are a fundamental part of conserving environment and conserving habitats,” Chapotin said. “And if you just focus on conserving the animals you're leaving out a huge part of the equation in terms of the plants.”

That all adds up to a continuing mission of saving plants there in the hopes of one day taking those that are now extinct outside the walls and reintroducing them back to Mother Nature.