Biology Informs Strategy

at the Montgomery Botanical Center

Palms and cycads are under threat!

Thus, a primary research area for Montgomery is to improve protocols for conserving rare plants. Montgomery Botanical Center determined long ago that the best use of its assets and expertise is to grow palms and cycads, in an effort to understand and conserve these living treasures.

What are we trying to do? Maintain genetically diverse collections of plants, in our garden, to reduce the risk of extinction.

But not every plant is the same! Some species or populations might need extra work. Careful consideration and study of each species’ biology helps our team figure out how to best conserve that species.

Our recommendations

1. Every species is different.

2. Every accession is different.

3. Every population is different.

4. Every year is different.

Our recommendations come from comparing data between different examples, and our understanding of the way these plants live. Stated in a very basic way: Biology informs strategy. For collections development and management, this is clear.

For a basic example, think of a tall palm with seeds held high in the air. In order to collect such seed, Dr. Larry Noblick had to get good at climbing! Be like Larry: have a strategy that fits the biology. Below, we discuss how biology informs strategy, regarding cycad conservation collections.

Every species is different:

Thus far, we have examined three species, which were selected as ‘case study’ models for our work. Keys Thatch Palm, Sinkhole Cycad and Bay Rush have very different biologies and life histories. In each case, having multiple plants in the garden is essential – but comparing what we learned about each of these highlights that a “one size fits” collecting strategy is not adequate. These comparisons also led to the other three recommendations.

Michael Calonje is pictured here carefully documenting the biology of Zamia lucayana. Be like Michael: consider the biology of the species you are collecting.

Every accession is different:

The value of different accessions is clear. By examining genetic diversity, sorted by accession, and comparing that to the diversity of the original population, we found that for the Sinkhole Cycad, having multiple accessions was absolutely essential to get a good representation of the wild plants.

Michael Calonje is pictured here with Zamia decumbens seeds from separate mother plants. Be like Michael: make sure you collect more than one accession. And keep them separate.

Every population is different:

Differences between populations are very apparent through these studies. Also from the genetic data gathered from these projects, we learned that populations differ from each other, and the collections from each population have a strong fidelity to where they originated.

Dr. Patrick Griffith is pictured here in one of the two sinkholes in 2008, collecting seeds. Be like Patrick: make sure you visit each population.

Every year is different:

One not-so-surprising finding from this work was that many more individual plants are needed for the Sinkhole Cycad than for the Keys Thatch Palm, or even the Bay Rush, in order to get an adequate level of genetic diversity in the collection. Considering the biology of these plants, and what we observed in the field, that appears to be related to the life history of the Sinkhole Cycad. In 2010, when we collected seed for these studies, only 7 female plants were coning. So, the collection is derived from a limited number of parents.

Freddy Tut (Belize Botanic Gardens) is pictured here, revisiting the sinkholes in 2014. Be like Freddy: make sure you go back again in different years.

Collage of photos: Larry climbing a palm tree in Brazil, 1986; Michael Calonje photographing a cycad in the Bahamas, 2011; Michael Calonje inspecting seeds in Belize, 2010; Patrick Griffith in a cave in Belize, 2008; and Freddy Tut in Belize, 2014.

Biology Informs Strategy

The guidelines here are a good starting point for conserving genetic diversity in a living plant collection. The main principle here is to observe and consider the biology of the species carefully, and use those observations to plan your work – biology informs strategy.


This project was supported in part by grants from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (MA-05-12-0336-12, MA-30-14-0123-14, & MG-30-16-0085-16), creating strong libraries and museums that connect people to information and ideas. In addition to major support from IMLS, we are grateful to the following funders of our fieldwork, conservation and outreach in this area: Association of Zoological HorticultureInternational Palm SocietyMohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation FundSave Our Species, and the City of Coral Gables, in addition to funds from MBC and the participating institutions. Living collections are also supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation (DBI 1203242). The following persons contributed to this work: Rudy Aguilar, Michael Calonje, Javier Francisco-Ortega, Patrick Griffith, Abby Hird, Lindy Knowles, Andrea Kramer, Tracy Magellan, Jan Meerman, Alan Meerow, Kyoko Nakamura, Dayana Salas-Leiva, Gail Stott, and Valentino Tzub. Finally, we are grateful to the participating organizations: Bahamas National TrustBelize Botanic GardensBotanic Gardens Conservation International USFlorida International UniversityGreen Hills Botanical CollectionsMontgomery Botanical CenterUSDA-ARS-SHRS Chapman Field Station, and Ya’axche Conservation Trust.

For further reading:

Toward the Metacollection: Coordinating conservation collections to safeguard plant diversity. BGCI.

Building living plant collections for conservation: a guide for public gardens. BGCI.

Cycads: A model group for ex situ plant conservation. BGCI.

A scientific paper on Cacheo Palm: Can a botanic garden metacollection better conserve wild plant diversity? International Journal of Plant Sciences.

A presentation about this project: Safeguarding our tree collections: garden coordinate to manage diversity. APGA 2018.

An abstract on this project: Botanic garden genetics: comparison of two cycad conservation collections. Botany 2015.

An abstract on this project: Underground plants help conservation on the surface – conservation genetics of Zamia decumbens. Botany 2013.

A paper about the discovery of the Sinkhole Cycad: A new species of Zamia (Zamiaceae) from the Maya Mountains of Belize. Journal of the Botanical Research Institute of Texas.

A review paper on botanic garden conservation collections: What is the Conservation Value of a Plant in a Botanic Garden? Using Indicators to Improve Management of ex situ Collections. Botanical Review.

An article for botanic garden managers: The price of conservation: measuring the mission and its cost. BGJournal.

An article for plant enthusiasts: Palm conservation in a botanic garden: a case study of the Keys Thatch Palm. Palms.

A scientific paper on Keys Thatch Palm: How well does a botanical garden collection of a rare palm capture the genetic variation in a wild population? Biological Conservation.

A news item on Zamia decumbens: Expedition leads to discovery of major population of Sinkhole Cycad. SOS Save Our Species

An article about the Collections Genetics Project: Underground Plants Shed Light on Conservation. Montgomery Botanical News

A scientific paper on the Sinkhole Cycad: Can a botanic garden cycad collection capture the genetic diversity in a wild population? International Journal of Plant Sciences

A scientific paper comparing two cycad collections: Will the same ex situ protocols give similar results for closely related species? Biodiversity and Conservation

An article about the National Leadership Grant: Montgomery provides national leadership to safeguard our trees. Montgomery Botanical News

An article about the National Leadership Grant in Landscape Architecture Magazine: Stocking Up: New Protocols Will Ensure the Genetic Diversity of Threatened Trees. Landscape Architecture Magazine