Systematics, Biodiversity and Evolution of Plants

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Prof. Dr. Dieter Podlech

Dieter Podlech, full professor of plant systematics at the Ludwig-Maximilians-University of Munich, Germany, passed away peacefully on December 21, 2021. A committed scientist and conservationist, Dieter was an internationally renowned expert on Cyperaceae, Campanulaceae, saxifrages, and the genus Astragalus, with 3000 species one of the World’s largest genera. Dieter’s contributions to our knowledge of the floras of Afghanistan, Iran, China, but also Central Europe are immense. He published comprehensive floristic treatments for the Flora of Southwest Africa, Flora Iranica, and the Flora of China. Dieter also described 1164 new taxa and made tens of thousands of herbarium specimens.

Dieter was born in Aachen on 24 April 1931. He studied pharmaceutical botany at the University of Bonn and obtained his doctorate there, with his first publication (in 1955), still as a student, focusing on the Myxomycota of the Rhineland-Palatinate and his doctoral thesis on the ecology of coastal Atlantic species. In 1960, he accepted a postdoctoral position in Munich, where he did his habilitation in 1965, working with Hermann Merxmüller (1920-1988). From 1965-1967, Dieter was a curator at the Munich herbarium (Botanische Staatssammlung) and from 1967-1971, an assistant professor at Munich university’s botanical institute, located on the grounds of the Munich botanical garden in the same building as the herbarium. Dieter became a full professor in 1971 and retired in 1996. Following his retirement, Dieter continued to work tirelessly, coming into work almost daily until December 2016, when declining health forced him to reduce his time at the institute.

He had an exceptionally strong interest in, and capacity for, field work, which often led him abroad. Between 1965 and 1979, Dieter undertook four excursions to Afghanistan, spending a total of 44 months there and collecting throughout the country. Until the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan, in December 1979, there were close ties between botanists in Afghanistan and Germany, with long stays in Kabul by Helmut Freitag (in 1966-1970), Dieter Podlech (in 1969-1971, 1978-1979), Siegmar-W. Breckle (in 1966-1969, 1976), Olaf Anders, and Alfred Dieterle. The Podlech herbarium with 40000 specimens from Afghanistan today forms the core of Munich’s Afghan plant holdings.

Dieter and his wife Maria, whom he met and married while still in Bonn, have five children, and providing for their education was a priority for Dieter. This may have been one reason why in 1991, five years before his retirement, Dieter decided to donate his personal herbarium of 200000 specimens to the university, requesting only a donation receipt and that the herbarium be mounted on especially stamped paper, with its own herbarium acronym, but otherwise fully intercalated with the main herbarium. This ingenious plan justified a newly created technical position, paid for by the university, and in 2005 and 2006, even the installation of new herbarium cases, again supported partly by the university. In this way, Dieter Podlech benefitted the entire herbarium and linked the university and the Bavarian natural history collections, which administer the main herbarium.

Based on his deep knowledge of natural habitats and plant ecology, the field in which he had done his doctoral research, Dieter Podlech was a powerful advocate for biological conservation. For example, in 1991/92 and 1998, he strongly protested the enlargement of the Munich North marshalling yard and the building of an additional Autobahn section north of Munich.

As a professor, Dieter was especially beloved because of the many excursions he led, including to Morocco, the Sahara (in 1980, 1981, 1982), Tunisia, and Algeria south to the Hoggar Mts. These were up to 5-week-long bus trips during which the focus was on the study of plant adaptions and biodiversity, including birds and insects.
Dieter Podlech’s legacy of herbarium specimens, especially from Afghanistan, will pay dividends for future scientists; Dieter is gone, but his lifelong collection efforts remain.

Text: Susanne S. Renner