St. Louis Character: Missouri Botanical Garden’s Robbie Hart finds his passion in the Himalayas

Posted in St. Louis Business Journal
Apr 15, 2021, 5:30am CDT

Robbie Hart in the Chinese Garden at the Missouri Botanical Garden, where he’s director of the William L. Brown Center.

Robbie Hart’s work at the Missouri Botanical Garden has taken him across the globe.

Hart, an ethnobotanist, studies plants and their impact on human populations. His research specifically focuses on climate change in the Himalayas and how it affects indigenous people there. The research has brought him to places like China, Nepal and Bhutan.

Hart is director of the Botanical Garden’s William L. Brown Center, which studies how plants, humans and the environment interact and the preservation of plants. He’s received numerous accolades for his work, including being named to the Explorers Club 50 list, which highlights “trailblazing explorers, scientists, and activists.” Hart also has been named a National Geographic Explorer.

What brought you to St. Louis? I came here for the garden and came here as a graduate student. I ended up studying at University of Missouri-St. Louis, but I was actually attracted to it by a program that Dr. Jan Salick, who’s now an emeritus curator at the garden, was offering to look at biodiversity conservation and sustainable livelihood development in the eastern Himalayas. I was really attracted to this because I worked in the Himalayan region before. I knew I really wanted to work on this intersection of biodiversity, but also people’s livelihoods. Jan is really a pioneer in this field of ethnobotany that I knew I wanted to continue to be involved in, so it was a really exciting chance to get to work with her.

What does your work in the Himalayas entail? I was born and raised in the foothills of the Olympic Mountains in Washington state, so a lot of my research actually is in these similar temperate and mountain areas. I’m really interested in Alpine plants. These are plants that grow above the tree line, which is the elevation beyond which you don’t get trees anymore. Maybe some woody shrubs, but mostly these little herbaceous plants you can see growing in the Bavarian Garden in the Botanical Garden here. They’re really interesting plants. They’re things that remind me of my home area.

What makes these plants interesting to study? They’re plants that are immediately affected by climate change because they live in this very temperature-dependent system in a lot of places. If the general temperature condition changes, the situation for the plants can also change a lot. Most of my work then is looking at how these mountain plants respond to climate change. Also, because I’m an ethnobotanist, I’m trying to work into that how people’s traditions that use these plants have to respond in regards to this change.

It almost seems like this type of work is part scientist and part anthropologist. My undergraduate training was in linguistics, which wasn’t within an anthropology department, but is a closely allied field. I have colleagues in ethnobotany who are trained as anthropologists. We definitely engage in the same sort of methods. We’ll go out and we’ll do lots of interviews with people about what they use plants for or how they see the conservation value of a certain plant. We’ll be aggregating information from these interviews or we’ll be doing things like participatory methods — so working with people as they construct calendars of the seasons and talk about how climate change is shifting that ecological, seasonal calendar.

What do you like to do in your free time? I’ve just been so enchanted by St. Louis. I haven’t lived in a city before. As I said, I’m a mountain kid. It is great that we can get outside the city so quickly and we can get to a trailhead. I love the fact that I live right here in the little corner between the Botanical Garden and Tower Grove Park. We can get out into a city green space in about 45 seconds. That could be walking in the garden or walking in the park here. In a normal year though, I would be taking much more advantage of the cultural amenities of St. Louis. We spend a lot of time in the art museum. As someone from a small town, I’m just wowed by the wonderful restaurants and the food scene in St. Louis, and the beer scene.

Do you have a favorite spot in the Botanical Garden? A really big part of my compensation package is being able to walk into the staff gate at the garden and walk through the Bavarian Garden. It’s one of our newer gardens, but it’s where a lot of Alpine plants are planted. Being able to stroll through a garden like the Japanese Garden at sunset is pretty special.

What’s something people may not know about you? My wife is a mystery novelist. So I am occasionally called in to find interesting botanical poison or something like that to be the botanical consultant for mystery novels.

More about Robbie Hart

Title: Director, William L. Brown Center; William L. Brown curator and associate scientist

Age: 37

Hometown: Port Angeles, Washington

Family: Hart and his wife, Elsa, live in the Shaw neighborhood

Education: Hart has a Ph.D. in biology from the University of Missouri-St. Louis. He graduated with a degree in linguistics from Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. He also holds an Associate of Arts degree from Peninsula College in Washington.

Nathan Rubbelke
St. Louis Business Journal

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