Botanist

Botany is the branch of biology that deals with plant life ranging from bacteria, algae, fungi, mosses, ferns, gymnosperms and flowering plants. Humans depend on plants for fresh air and food.  Plants also fulfill many other needs, such as medicine, building materials and the creation of aesthetically pleasing environments.  Botanists can specialise in any of the following areas: plant ecology, plant genetics, plant morphology, plant pathology, plant physiology, plant taxonomy or economic botany.


Plant taxonomists identify and classify plants. They study the systematics, chemistry, structure, genetics and reproduction of plants.  They usually work in herbaria where the collected plants are kept, though they also collect plants in the field and work in laboratories or greenhouses where the systematics, chemistry, structure, population genetics and the reproductive behaviour of plants are studied.

Ethnobotanists research all the plants traditionally used for food and medicine.  They study the different ways in which people make use of plants, whether for food, fibre, medicine or any other purpose.  They are often involved in the discovery of plants and the collection of economically profitable plants, the re-vegetation of exploited areas and the conservation of rare and endangered species. 

Palaeontologists and palaeobotanists study plant fossils and fossil and living pollen, and they should have an interest in rocks and geology.  These studies often shed light on the historical background of a certain region and useful information is gained for studies in Archaeology, Ecology and Systematics. Light and electron microscopes are used for the identification of plant species by examining the pollen.  The work is usually done in a laboratory.  Palaentologists are also used in forensic medicine and criminology in situations where it is possible to identify pollen on clothes, shoes and the body.

Plant physiologists study the functioning of plants. This involves the growth, development, nutrient uptake and biochemical processes of plants.  These studies are very important because of the pressure placed on the provision of food by the growth of the population.  Plant physiologists plan a vital role in agriculture where drought resistance, crop production, nutritional value, quality of the food crops, the germination as well as the storage of seed and the production of fruit are studied.  They usually work in laboratories but also conduct studies on farmlands, in growth chambers and greenhouses.

Mycologists study fungi.  These organisms are often microscopic in size, or threadlike, and do not photosynthesize.  They play an important part in food cycles in the various ecosystems.  They cause decay in food and other natural products and are also important in the chemical and pharmaceutical industry - they produce some important antibiotics such as penicillin.  Mycologists are active in the mushroom industry of South Africa.

Plant pathologists study the diseases found in specific cultivated crops or trees so that they can be controlled.  The work is mainly done with the use of microscopy.

Plant geneticists work in two main areas, namely, the cultivation of crops and population and evolutionary genetics. In the first instance, they are employed in the agricultural departments and also in the private sector where new plant varieties are developed and selected for productivity and resistance to diseases, and programmes worked on for the improvement of trees for cultivation.  The work also involves performing field experiments and the use of microscopes in laboratories.

Weed scientists study the different types of weed as well as mechanical, chemical and biological methods of control. A thorough knowledge of the different insects used for biological control of weeds is necessary.  Weed scientists are involved in projects to rehabilitate areas taken over by weeds.  Knowledge of ecology is essential, so that soil erosion is prevented and to ensure that other weeds do not replace the ones that were removed.  Knowledge of ecology makes it possible to understand why weeds invade certain areas and to make predictions.


Employment

  • Department of Agriculture
  • Department of Water Affairs and Forestry
  • Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism
  • SA Bureau of Standards and CSIR
  • National Botanical Institute
  • National Parks Boards
  • Oceanographic Research Institute
  • Plant Protection Research Institute
  • universities, universities of technology and schools
  • self-employment, as consultant, for example to fertiliser companies
The National Botanical Institute (NBI) is the main employer of botanists. The NBI-herbarium in Kirstenbosch and some museums employ plant taxonomists to study the flora of that region. Some universities also employ plant taxonomists in full-time research posts.


Getting Started

  • try to obtain employment at, or volunteer to work for, a park, nursery, experimental station, florist shop or landscape architect
  • arrange to speak to a botanist and ask permission to observe them at work


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