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A Collection for the Ages

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Dr. Carlyle A. Luer is considered one of the most prolific botanists of both this and the previous centuries. A key founder of Selby Gardens, Luer, 95, has described and illustrated more than 3,000 new orchid species. This feat is just an estimate as the exact number of his discoveries is not quite certain. Verifying that number is now the challenge for Selby Gardens’ staff orchidologist, Dr. Antonio Toscano de Brito, a longtime collaborator and friend of Luer.

“During the next couple of years, my task is to prepare an inventory of his achievements,” Toscano de Brito said. “During his botanical career, he amassed a huge collection of thousands of spirit specimens (mainly flowers, parts of plants, and sometimes the whole plant) preserved in a liquid solution.”

That internationally-regarded collection was stored at Luer’s Sarasota home until this past summer. In June the collection was donated and moved to Selby Gardens, along with Luer’s illustration collection. Dr. Luer and his wife, Jane, have also made a commitment to the new Gardens Master Site Plan, which will include a more visible, state-of-the-art herbarium and laboratory.

“We are all deeply honored that Dr. Luer has entrusted his life’s work to Selby Gardens,” said Jennifer O. Rominiecki, President and CEO.

Dr. Luer was essential to the formation of Selby Gardens. A surgeon by trade, Luer was an avid amateur botanist. He embarked upon a second career in botany in his 50s, while at the same time helping inform the establishment of Selby Gardens. He did so by demonstrating to the board of trustees of Palmer Bank (which managed Marie Selby’s estate) the merits of a research-based botanical garden, which would impact the greater scientific world far more than just a public garden space. Working together with consultants from The New York Botanical Garden and the University of Florida, it was agreed that specializing in one group of plants would be feasible for the size of the property. And so, Marie Selby Botanical Gardens was born.

This was not Luer’s only contribution to this institution. Dr. Luer was chairman of the Board of Trustees from 1974 – 1979, and he traveled to Ecuador to recruit Dr. Calaway Dodson, Selby Gardens’ first executive director, along with other early staff members. Luer also purchased many of the rare botanical books, prints and other treasures found in our library, and he started the herbarium and spirit collection. Specimen No. 1, Aceras anthropophorum, Orchidaceae, was collected in Gerona, Spain by Luer in April 1974.

“Selby Gardens would not exist as it is today if it were not for Dr. Luer,” said Toscano de Brito.

The two botanists have developed a great admiration for one another since they first met in London in 1991 when Toscano de Brito was a Ph.D. candidate at Kew Gardens. The two published their first article together in 1993 and have been collaborating ever since in the study of Pluerothallid orchids from Brazil.

“We did field work together a number of times in Brazil and jointly published several other articles, especially after 2011 when I arrived here in Sarasota to work for Selby Gardens,” Toscano de Brito said.  Upon Dr. Toscano de Brito’s arrival, the duo’s relationship grew from collegial to familial. They both now call each other Holmes and Watson with Toscano de Brito playing the assistant to Luer’s Sherlock. Emails, letters and notes between them are signed with those nicknames, and at times just an initial “S” or “H.” While the shorthand is tenderhearted, those correspondences have also given Toscano de Brito the time to familiarize himself with Luer’s handwriting, a skill necessary for now compiling the handwritten labels of his collection for future research. Toscano de Brito takes this responsibility in stride, however.

“He [Luer] keeps telling me that I am just beginning my career,” he said. “I hope he is right!”

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