Plant Talk | Science Talk

Turning Over an Old Leaf

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on August 24th, 2015 by Ansel Oommen – Be the first to comment

Ansel Oommen is a freelance writer, artist, and research assistant for the Research Foundation for Mental Hygiene at Columbia University Medical Center. For the last year, he has been a volunteer at the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium at The New York Botanical Garden.



In one way or another, I have been involved with the world of plants and insects since early childhood. So when I heard about the volunteering opportunities available at The New York Botanical Garden, I knew exactly how I wanted to spend my spare time.

Under the guidance of Project Coordinator Mari Roberts, I worked on herbarium records for the Tri-Trophic Thematic Collection Network (TTD-TCN). The TTD-TCN is an ambitious database that connects universities, museums, botanical gardens, and other partners to organize and study records pertaining to plant-insect relationships, particularly those of the “true bugs” (the insect order Hemiptera, which includes aphids, cicadas, and leafhoppers, among others), their host plants, and the insects that parasitize the true bugs (the order Hymenoptera, which includes wasps, bees, and ants).

This project held distinct meaning because it was not the first time that I had encountered such complex interactions.  Last summer, I reared dozens of cabbage white caterpillars (Pieris rapae) to adulthood. In the process, I discovered that their host plant, kale, was also home to an interesting array of multi-legged denizens, including the cabbage aphid (Brevicoryne brassicae), the larvae of the diamondback moth (Plutella xylostella), predatory hoverfly larvae, and the parasitoid wasp Cotesia glomerata. I watched with both awe and horror as multiple wasp pupae erupted out of one caterpillar and how, subsequently, its behavior changed.
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Tree of Heaven: An Immigrant Thriving in New York and Beyond

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on August 13th, 2015 by Scott Mori – Be the first to comment

Scott A. Mori, Ph.D, is a Curator Emeritus associated with the Institute of Systematic Botany at The New York Botanical Garden. His research interests are the ecology, classification, and conservation of tropical rain forest trees. He is also interested in the plants of Westchester County, where he lives.

A tree of heaven growing along the Sawmill River Parkway.

A tree of heaven growing along the Sawmill River Parkway.

In 1986, R. S. Mitchell calculated that 1,081 of the 3,022 known species of flowering plants in New York State have been introduced from other parts of the world (A checklist of New York State Plants. New York State Museum and Science Service 458: 1-250). That means 36 percent of the plant species found in the Empire State are exotic, or not native.

One of these introductions is the tree of heaven (Ailanthus altissima of the mostly tropical plant family Simaroubaceae), which was introduced several times into the United States from China and Taiwan due to its ornamental and medicinal properties.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture Plants Database, the tree of heaven has been recorded in all but seven states in the contiguous United States. This species is particularly aggressive because it is able to become established in many different habitats; grow rapidly, which gives it the ability to produce seeds in a short time; be pollinated by many different insects, such as bees, beetles, and flies; grow in contaminated soils; produce stems from suckers; and generate winged fruits, which enable it to be efficiently dispersed by the wind.

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The tree of heaven is easy to identify because of its long, pinnately compound leaves placed alternately on the stem and its flowers, with the ovaries divided into five separate parts, each of which can produce a winged fruit called a samara. The tree of heaven is especially conspicuous at this time of year because of the abundant fruits that are first yellow and then red at maturity.

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Highways produce the sunny conditions that the tree of heaven thrives in, thereby providing a migration route that facilitates its movement from one area to other. As a consequence of its ability to produce abundant seeds, it easily moves from one locality to another, and once established, suckers allow it to produce additional stems. With time it will become more and more abundant along our highways and other open habitats.

Mission Possible: NYBG Scientists Boost Conservation of Fungi

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on August 11th, 2015 by Science Talk – Be the first to comment

Jessica L. Allen is a graduate student in the Commodore Matthew Perry Graduate Studies Program, and James C. Lendemer, Ph.D., is an Assistant Curator at the Institute of Systematic Botany, both at The New York Botanical Garden. Lichens, which include a fungal component, are their primary research interest.

Healthy community of diverse lichens growing on a mature Fraser fir that remains alive.

Healthy community of diverse lichens growing on a mature Fraser fir that remains alive.

Every day, thousands of fungal species throughout the United States perform essential jobs all around us for free. They are vast networks, above and below ground, that facilitate nutrient transportation, form soil, provide natural fertilizers, and add delightful variety to our diets. If fungi went on strike, everybody would notice.

In the United States approximately 10 percent of fish and mammals are protected by the Endangered Species Act, including such American icons as the bald eagle and the American paddlefish. Yet fungi, which constitute an entire kingdom in the scientific classification of species, are effectively excluded from the dialogue. Of the nearly 40,000 known fungal species in North America, only two are protected by the Endangered Species Act!

Is it because we know so little?  Are there no threats to fungi? Are fungi immune to the threats posed to plants and animals? As is outlined in a recent issue of Endangered Species Research, the answer to all of these questions is a definite “No.” read more »

Cuba Conference: Aiming For a New Model of Sustainable and Equitable Development

Posted in Travelogue on July 29th, 2015 by Brian Boom – Be the first to comment

Brian M. Boom, Ph.D., is Vice President for Conservation Strategy, Director of NYBG Press and Science Outreach, and Bassett Maguire Curator of Botany at The New York Botanical Garden. The flora of Cuba is one of his research specialties.

The title of this post reflects the overarching theme of an international conference on the environment and development that was held recently in Havana, Cuba. I attended as a delegate from The New York Botanical Garden, making a presentation on novel methods to accelerate the conservation assessment of plant species so that plants can figure more centrally in the designation of new Key Biodiversity Areas (KBAs). I will write about these methods and KBAs later. For now, I wanted to report on the palpable energy and enthusiasm, both in tone and substance, for the diverse topics and perspectives on display in Havana during the week.


This conference played out against the backdrop of a new era in the relationship between Cuba and the U.S., with a great many new implications for development and the environment in Cuba. The conference’s highlighting of development as a process that should be sustainable and equitable refers to the need for development to be fair for both developed and less developed nations. Hundreds of delegates from some two dozen countries made presentations and engaged in debates on more than a dozen themes such as protected natural areas, biodiversity and management of ecosystems, environmental justice, environmental education, natural history museums, and climate change. The Spanish program of the conference and the abstracts of presentations can be accessed here.
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Every Bush Has a Use, Every Bush Has a Meaning

Posted in Travelogue on July 20th, 2015 by Ina Vandebroek – Be the first to comment

Ina Vandebroek, Ph.D., is the Matthew Calbraith Perry Assistant Curator of Economic Botany and Director of the Caribbean Program at The New York Botanical Garden. An ethnomedical research specialist, she studies people’s cultural knowledge, beliefs, and practices related to traditional medicine.

Portland Parrish

A walk in the close surroundings of the community, showing the green beauty of Portland parish.

It was my last interview during one of my ethnobotanical field trips to a farming community in the lush northeast parish of Portland in Jamaica. I sat on the porch of the home of Faye, a female farmer, while the sun was setting behind the beautiful John Crow Mountains that surround the community. We looked at a set of pictures on my laptop. They were photos of plants growing in and around the community. For each one, I asked Faye if she knew the plant’s local name (or names) and its cultural uses, especially for healthcare. In rural Jamaica, people still rely greatly on wild plants (or, as they say in Jamaican patois, “bush”). They use many of these plants to treat ill health or enjoy them as a cup of tea in the morning to stay strong and energized.

Interviewing people is a standard method in ethnobotanical research. Through individual interviews with several people in the community who self-medicate with “bush medicines,” I am hoping to develop a database of locally useful plants and to understand the myriad of ways in which these plants are used. I am also trying to find out which bush plants people know best, and who is especially knowledgeable about them. These data can be used to compare culturally important plants and popularly known medicinal uses for them across several Caribbean countries. The ultimate goal is to give back that information to the community, so that these precious oral traditions do not disappear.
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Shaggy Ink Cap: A Mushroom that Can Clean Up a Mess

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on July 9th, 2015 by Maya Jaffe – 2 Comments

Maya Jaffe graduated from Florida International University and has had an internship at the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium, where she has worked on a project to digitize macrofungi, the largest types of fungi, including mushrooms.

[Illustration by Geo. E. Morris (1906), property of NYBG]

I sit behind drawn curtains in a dark room, illuminated only by light tents that are used for taking pictures. It’s another day on the job as an intern in the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium, where I am helping in an effort to digitize the New York Botanical Garden’s macrofungi. As I make my way alphabetically through the Agaricaceae family, I come across a shaggy ink cap specimen, Coprinus comatus, with a beautiful illustration.
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Umbrella Tree Woes: Well-known Houseplants Part Company

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on June 30th, 2015 by Gregory Plunkett – 1 Comment

Gregory M. Plunkett, Ph.D., is Director and Curator of the Cullman Program for Molecular Systematics at The New York Botanical Garden.

A Schefflera plant, shown in its native habitat on New Caledonia, an island in the South Pacific

A Schefflera plant, shown in its native habitat on New Caledonia, an island in the South Pacific

In 1912, the eminent horticulturalist Harry James Veitch helped move the Royal Horticultural Society’s Great Spring Show to the Chelsea section of London, where his family’s famous nursery firm, James Veitch & Sons, was headquartered. The show was thereafter known as the Chelsea Flower Show, an annual event that is considered the world’s most famous horticultural exhibition. But while Harry was busy running the family firm, his brother John Gould Veitch was one of a select group of Victorian explorers who traveled the world seeking new plants to bring into cultivation.

One of these plants was Aralia elegantissima, which was first introduced to the world during the Great Spring Show of 1873. Since then, it’s been called by many other names, including Dizygotheca elegantissima, Schefflera elegantissima, and Plerandra elegantissima. As the common element in those names suggests, its leaves are “most elegant,” with slender, dark-green and smartly toothed leaflets, not unlike those of Cannabis. As it turns out, wild populations of this “False Aralia” are entirely restricted to the South Pacific island of New Caledonia, where Veitch originally discovered it. Today, it’s widely cultivated as a “tropical foliage plant,” gracing shopping centers and fast-food restaurants from New York to London to Tokyo. John Veitch would be duly proud of the success of his introduction. Unfortunately, the plant has not fared as well in its native New Caledonia, where it is on the brink of extinction due to habitat loss.

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The Buzz

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on June 29th, 2015 by Christian Primeau – Be the first to comment

Christian Primeau is NYBG‘s Manager of the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory.

Coffea arabica

Coffea arabica

The dictionary in my office defines an alkaloid as “one of a large class of organic, nitrogen-containing ring compounds of vegetable origin and sometimes synthesized that have a bitter taste, are usually water-insoluble and alcohol-soluble, that combine with acids without the loss of a water molecule to form water-soluble hydrochlorides, hydrobromides or…”

Need I continue?

Based on this definition, you might conclude that a blog post about an alkaloid is as exhilarating as collecting paperclips. Who could blame you? But alkaloids are nothing if not incredible. Mind you, this is coming from a man who, I’m ashamed to admit, spent much of college chemistry struggling to stay awake or attempting to secure a date with the brunette in the front row (both hopeless endeavors).

I’d be willing to bet most of you love alkaloids, too…or at least one in particular. It’s okay to admit an alkaloid is on your mind the instant you wake in the morning, during that staff meeting or interminable chemistry lecture. It doesn’t make you a bad person. Better than 80% of Americans are in the same boat, because eight out of 10 Americans simply can’t live without their daily coffee. As a recent and very reluctant convert to decaf, I can attest to the fact that without caffeine (an alkaloid!) the world is a far different place. Navigating The City that Never Sleeps without caffeine is like entering a NASCAR race on a rusty tricycle with a broken wheel and no seat. Sure, it can be done—but the risks are incalculable.
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Tracking a Freshwater Invader across New York and New England

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on June 23rd, 2015 by Robin Sleith – Be the first to comment

Robin Sleith, a Ph.D. candidate in the Commodore Matthew Perry Graduate Studies Program at The New York Botanical Garden, is researching algae under the direction of Kenneth G. Karol, Ph.D., Associate Curator in the Cullman Program for Molecular Systematics and the Botanical Garden’s specialist in algae.

Robin Sleith algae samples New York State lakes ponds invasive species

The 400 lakes surveyed in the summer of 2014
Credit: Robin Sleith

Robin Sleith starry stonewort algae Nitellopsis obtusa

The star-shaped bulbil of Nitellopsis obtusa that gives rise to it common name, starry stonewort
Credit: Robin Sleith

This summer, a team from The New York Botanical Garden will set out for the second year to document the diversity of green algae that live in hundreds of lakes in the northeastern United States and determine the distribution of an invasive freshwater alga species, Nitellopsis obtusa, or starry stonewort.

Starry stonewort, which is native to Europe and western Asia, is replacing native plant species and threatening the habitat and food sources of small fish and invertebrates in the lakes where it is found. Growing to a height of seven feet in water as deep as 30 feet, starry stonewort forms dense mats that out-compete native species.

First discovered in the St. Lawrence Seaway in 1978, it has spread at an alarming rate through the Great Lakes and into inland lakes in New York State. It is easily transported from lake to lake as plant debris caught in boat trailers.

Robin Sleith with starry stonewort (Nitellopsis obtusa). Robert Stewart

Graduate student Robin Sleith with starry stonewort (Nitellopsis obtusa). Note the setting: this alga is often found in areas of high human traffic.
Credit: Robert Stewart.

Last summer, we surveyed 400 lakes throughout New York State for starry stonewort and other green algae. Grappling hooks in hand, we traversed the state on week-long excursions, averaging 10 lakes per day. At each lake, we used the grappling hooks to gather algal specimens and also collected water-chemistry data and documented physical characteristics. There was no shortage of excitement on our journey, owing to multiple tornado warnings, many bear-sightings, and countless beautiful vistas.

We found starry stonewort in lakes across New York, from Jamestown to Potsdam, but did not find it within the boundaries of Adirondack Park. This is good news for the millions who visit the Park annually. The Adirondack region has a strong Watershed Stewardship Program, and we are partnering with this program to raise awareness about starry stonewort and the measures that can be taken—such as cleaning and fully drying boats and gear—to keep this invasive out of Adirondack lakes and ponds.

Now we are taking our grappling hooks to New England to conduct a similar survey of lakes, so stay tuned for more updates.

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As Summer Awaits, A Scientist Ponders Springtime at NYBG

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on June 18th, 2015 by Gregory Plunkett – Be the first to comment

Gregory M. Plunkett, Ph.D., is Director and Curator of the Cullman Program for Molecular Systematics at The New York Botanical Garden.


Magnolia salicifolia

What a pleasure it is to stroll through The New York Botanical Garden, especially during springtime. The landscape varies from hills to low places, from exposed vistas to the isolation of the ancient Thain Family Forest. Then there are the textures: deep rich soils, jagged bark, scoured bedrock outcroppings, and wide flat lawns. And throughout this season, it has been impossible to ignore an explosion of color—carpets of yellow daffodils, spires of white magnolias and pink cherries, and the deep purples of grape hyacinths—all set against the backdrop of the vibrant spring-greens of the renewed trees and grasses. Simply amazing.

But there’s more than one way to look at the Botanical Garden and the beauty of the plant world. In part, that’s what the Garden’s scientists do every day.

To understand this better, consider what it is like to stroll through a great art museum, such as the Louvre in Paris. Like the Garden, the Louvre is filled with great treasures for the eyes. The museum itself provides the great landscape, through which we can appreciate the various textures, ranging from the hard stone of Greco-Roman statues to the soft canvases of Renaissance paintings, the pliable wood of native arts, and the smooth, rich gold of the decorative arts. And like spring in the Garden, the museum is ablaze with color. In each gallery, we can experience this variety in landscape, texture, and color on a purely aesthetic level—truly one of life’s great pleasures.  read more »