The ebb and flow of plant resources and knowledge; contemporary and historical perspectives from Kew

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    Botanical gardens have played key roles in the transfer of material and immaterial botanical resources, both between and across regions. From active acquisition and dissemination with a view to exploitation and dissemination – sometimes with inadvertently destructive consequences – through to more conservation-conscious acquisition and finally to repatriation, not only of data and germplasm but also of expertise, these roles have altered dramatically. The function of the ethnobotanist meanwhile, reflecting these changes, has shifted from documenter and disseminator to analyst and facilitator, whilst the Internet has assumed an increasingly significant part in the transmission of plant knowledge, and indeed of plants themselves. Throughout these transformations the role of taxonomists and collections in defining species and systematising the natural world has remained fundamental to trans-regional exchanges, both of species and of information. But were early transactions as asymmetrical as many interpretations suggest, and the motivation behind them as inherently exploitative? Are current programmes as altruistic as they appear? Is plant identification as important as the taxonomists would maintain? Drawing on contemporary activities from Kew, from ethnobotany to seed banking, digitisation, databasing and collections-based research, and supported by historical documents, we examine the realities behind these interpretations and the drivers for change that underlie them.