Gregory Plunkett
Greg Plunkett, colleague Pete Lowry (left, Missouri Botanical Garden), and Peruvian student Sebastián Riva show off a newly discovered plant species, Sciodaphyllum canoi ined., collected near Cuzco, Peru (2018)
2022

Gregory Plunkett

Botanist

Learning botany from locals

meet gregory

Gregory M. Plunkett, PhD, is a botanist and evolutionary biologist who has devoted his life to understanding and preserving the world’s amazing plant diversity. He has published over 100 scientific papers and book chapters and has led or participated in 80 field expeditions to remote areas. Plunkett was professor of biology at Virginia Commonwealth University for 13 years before taking up his current post in 2009 as Director of Molecular Systematics at the New York Botanical Garden. When the Covid-19 pandemic led to international border closures, he was trapped in Vanuatu for 1.5 years and used the experience to produce the country’s first authoritative checklist of flora. He completed the documentary, “plants mo pipol blong vanuatu”, filmed by the indigenous people.

Learning botany from locals
Nominated by: David Harrison FN'15
Class of 2022 Location USA
Greg Plunkett working with elders from Aneityum Island, Vanuatu, along with indigenous student trainees Thomas Doro and Frazer Alo
Greg Plunkett working with elders from Aneityum Island, Vanuatu, along with indigenous student trainees Thomas Doro and Frazer Alo Author: Michael Balick

I’m driven by a love for plants in all their astonishing diversity. Perennially under-appreciated, plants provide food, medicines, clothing, housing and oxygen to the world. My life’s work has been dedicated to exploring this diversity through a combination of field and laboratory research. Of the 400,000 species of plants, I have concentrated on a group of about 6,000 species in the carrot and ivy families, exploring remote forests in 30 countries on six continents. My work has contributed significantly to an enhanced understanding of the evolutionary and biogeographic relationships of these plants, leading to authorship of nearly 600 scientific names.

“A treasure trove of traditional wisdom, Vanuatu is ready to teach the world about how to live in harmony with nature, if we have the humility to listen and learn.”

- Gregory Plunkett
Greg Plunkett accepts a chicken as a thank-you gift from Chief Napan of Inemra Village, Tanna, Vanuatu (2016) in appreciation for helping to provide water tanks and pipes to deliver fresh water, as part of a forest conservation project.
Greg Plunkett accepts a chicken as a thank-you gift from Chief Napan of Inemra Village, Tanna, Vanuatu (2016) in appreciation for helping to provide water tanks and pipes to deliver fresh water, as part of a forest conservation project. Author: Gregory M. Plunkett

After joining the New York Botanical Garden, my work in Oceania broadened considerably when I joined forces with ethnobotanist Michael Balick. We chose Vanuatu as the site for a long-term program to document plant diversity, traditional plant uses, and plant names in the 130 or so indigenous languages found there. After Vanuatu achieved independence, they made bold decisions to return to traditional approaches to governance and lifestyle. These decisions are slowly being eroded by the pressures of globalization. By listening rather than imposing, we observed the astounding knowledge and skills of local people. This was a humbling experience. I have been able to partner with local leaders to pioneer new approaches to conservation that are built upon the needs and desires of the traditional stewards of Vanuatu’s forests. Empowering local people has been a catalyst for creative syntheses of traditional and modern solutions. A treasure trove of traditional wisdom, Vanuatu is ready to teach the world about how to live in harmony with nature, if we have the humility to listen and learn.

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