The National Tropical Botanical Garden (NTBG) has named Dr. Alan W. Meerow as the 2017 recipient of the David Fairchild Medal for Plant Exploration. The organization is honoring Dr. Meerow, a senior research geneticist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, for his eclectic career that combines botany, horticulture, and genetic research.
The award was presented on February 3 at an invitation only black tie dinner at The Kampong, NTBG’s garden in Coconut Grove, Florida. The following day, Dr. Meerow delivered a public lecture entitled “Monocots as Metaphor: 35 years of exploring tropical plant diversity.”
A native of New York, Meerow graduated from The Bronx High School of Science. Upon moving to California at age 19, he taught himself botanical terminology and how to use a plant identification key with the flora of the Santa Cruz Mountains before embarking on undergraduate studies at the University of California Davis.
After earning a Master of Science from the University of Florida, Dr. Meerow completed a Ph.D. at the University of Florida in 1986 with a dissertation on monographs for Eurcharis and Caliphruria.
Meerow was a professor at the University of Florida’s Fort Lauderdale Research and Education Center from 1987 –1999. Since 1999, Meerow has served as a senior research geneticist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service at the Subtropical Horticulture Research Station, National Germplasm Repository in Miami, Florida. In addition to heading a lab that developed a microsatellite DNA isolation protocol, he has overseen breeding and selection programs for Hippeastrum, Alstroemeria, and Portlandia, evaluated subtropical ornamental plants for possible introduction to the horticulture trade, and conducted extensive phylogenetic seed plant analyses in the Amaryllis, palm, and cycad families.
In a multi-disciplined career that includes botany and horticulture, Meerow uses the latest technology to answer questions of systematic interest and conduct population genetic studies. As a horticulturist, he published the first papers in the United States on the use of coir (coconut husk fiber) as a substitute for sphagnum peat moss.
Meerow has also conducted extensive work on palms, cycads, and other plant families, but is recognized for his systematic research on the evolutionary relationships within the Amaryllis family. Additionally, Meerow has published and contributed to scores of academic papers, journals, books, and other publications but says that it’s his dual roles as a botanist and horticulturist he finds most satisfying.
Dr. Meerow has more than 35 years of field experience collecting plants for research, trial, and cultivation in Central and South America, Africa, the Caribbean, and Southeast Asia. His field research includes a focus on geophytes (bulb and tuber-born plants) as well the pursuit of new germplasm for research and horticultural evaluation. He has been particularly active in Brazil with a network of Brazilian collaborators.
Craig Morell, Director of The Kampong, noted that Dr. Meerow’s books on palms and horticulture are mainstays of the landscape trade throughout the southern United States and in academia nationwide. He praised Meerow as a widely respected scientist who generously shares his knowledge.
NTBG’s Director and CEO Chipper Wichman called Meerow “a rare blend of traditional botanist, a consummate hands-in-the-dirt horticulturist and plant collector, and cutting-edge genetics researcher.”
When Meerow learned he had been selected as winter of the 2017 Fairchild Medal he replied, “I am extremely honored and flattered.” Having spent more than 17 years working at the USDA facility initiated by David Fairchild himself, Meerow said, “only adds to my real sense of honor.”
The award is named for Dr. David Fairchild, one of the greatest and most influential horticulturalists and plant collectors in the United States, who devoted his life to plant exploration by searching the world for useful plants suitable for introduction into the United States. As an early “Indiana Jones”-type explorer, he conducted field trips throughout Malaysia, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, China, Japan, the South Pacific, the Caribbean, South America, the Middle East, and East and South Africa during the late 1800s and early 1900s. These explorations resulted in the introduction of many tropical plants of economic importance to the U.S. including sorghum, nectarines, unique species of bamboo, dates, and varieties of mangoes.
In addition, as director of the Office of Foreign Seed and Plant Introduction of the U.S. Department of Agriculture during the early 20th Century, Fairchild was instrumental in the introduction of approximately 75,000 selected varieties and species of useful plants, such as Durum wheat, Japanese rices, Sudan grass, Chinese soy beans, Chinese elms, persimmons, and pistachios. He and his wife, Marian Bell Fairchild, daughter of Alexander Graham Bell, purchased property in South Florida in 1916 and created both a home and an “introduction garden” for plant species found on his expeditions. He named the property “The Kampong,” the Malay word for “village.”
The tropical species he collected from Southeast Asia in the 1930s and 1940s are still part of the heritage collections of The Kampong. The property is the only U.S. mainland garden owned by NTBG, which has four gardens and five preserves in Hawai‘i. The not-for-profit, nongovernmental organization is dedicated to conservation, research, and education relating to the world’s tropical plants, with an emphasis on at-risk species.
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Media contact: Jon Letman, email@example.com, (808) 332-7324, ext. 219 at National Tropical Botanical Garden Headquarters