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Oliver Sacks: A Remembrance

Posted in Personalities in Science on November 25th, 2015 by Robbin Moran – Be the first to comment

Robbin C. Moran, Ph.D., is Nathaniel Lord Britton Curator of Botany at NYBG‘s Institute of Systematic Botany. He is an expert on ferns and lycophytes.

Oliver Sacks

Oliver Sacks visiting a titan arum (Amorphophallus titanum) in 2004. (Photo by Robbin Moran.)

Oliver Sacks, a board member of The New York Botanical Garden, died of cancer at his home in New York City on August 30, 2015. He was 82. Oliver was one of the world’s leading neurologists and science writers, known for his many essays and books such as Awakenings, The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, An Anthropologist on Mars, Island of the Colorblind, Uncle Tungsten, and Musicophilia. Some of these books, or chapters in them, were adapted for film and/or stage, such as Awakenings (Robin Williams and Robert De Niro), At First Sight (Val Kilmer and Mira Sorvino), and The Music Never Stopped (Lou Taylor Pucci and Julia Ormond). Since his death, much has been written about his life, but little has been written about him as a lover of plants, which he indeed was, especially of ferns and cycads.

Oliver developed an interest in plants as a boy. At age six he was evacuated from London to a school in the English Midlands to avoid the Blitz. Separated from his parents and extremely lonely and unhappy, he took solace in holiday visits to his Aunt Len’s place in Cheshire. She had a garden and delighted in explaining its plants to an inquisitive young Oliver. They took long botanizing walks in the forest, stopping frequently to look at ferns and horsetails. These visits to “Auntie Len’s” instilled a love for plants that stayed with him for the rest of his life.
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WeDigBio: Bringing Biological Collections to the World

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on November 20th, 2015 by Science Talk – Be the first to comment

Mari A. Roberts is a Volunteer Coordinator at The New York Botanical Garden’s William and Lynda Steere Herbarium. Her work focuses on engaging citizen scientists in the digitization of plant specimens.

wedigbioDid you know that you can volunteer on a global initiative right here at The New York Botanical Garden? That’s what happened last month when 15 volunteers participated in the Worldwide Engagement for Digitizing Biocollections (WeDigBio), making information on biodiversity collections—such as pressed plants, pinned insects, and aquatic species in jars—available online.

WeDigBio was a one-of-a-kind event engaging hundreds of volunteers to transcribe specimens at more than 30 institutions via multiple transcription platforms (DigiVolHebaria @ HomeLes HerbonautesNotes from NatureSmithsonian Institution’s Transcription Center and Symbiota). One goal of WeDigBio was to increase awareness of the importance of biodiversity collections and of making them easily available online to researchers worldwide. Thanks to WeDigBio volunteers at The New York Botanical Garden, The National Museum of Natural History, Australian Museum, Florida State University and dozens of other institutions, data on more than 31,000 biological specimens will be available for researchers, graduate students and even citizen scientists!

Biodiversity collections held in universities, natural history museums and herbaria are physical representations of our planet’s life forms and biological processes. Plant specimens are collected in the field and then stored in a herbarium, where they can remain for hundreds of years. However, collections are not easily accessible to the general public, nor are there digital representations of every specimen.

“Never has it been more important for museums to open their specimen cabinet doors to the public,” says Austin Mast, a WeDigBio organizer and Associate Professor of Biological Science at Florida State University. “Everyone should have the chance to see the rich textures of life on Earth in these collections. Public participation of this sort helps science bring those rich textures into sharper focus.”

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The William and Lynda Steere Herbarium at the Botanical Garden is one of 3,400 herbaria in the world and holds 7.8 million specimens that are used by Garden scientists and visiting researchers. To digitize our collections—that is, cataloging them, imaging specimens, and transcribing specimen information—staff and volunteers work on multi-institutional grant-funded projects to target specific areas of the Steere Herbarium’s collections.

For WeDigBio, Garden volunteers captured information about the historical who, what, when, and where of 500 specimens of bryophytes (mosses and their relatives). Bryophytes are model organisms for documenting environmental change because they take up atmospheric nutrients in their environment. By studying these sensitive indicators in historic and recent collections, scientists can address research questions concerning the change in species distributions after man-made environmental events such as climate change, air pollution, and habitat destruction.


Interested in volunteering? You don’t have to wait until WeDigBio 2016! There are opportunities in the Steere Herbarium year round. Help us discover vital information in our rich collection of plant specimens and contribute to our cause of preserving biodiversity.

For volunteer opportunities in the Herbarium, contact Mari Roberts at

Where Botany and Healthcare Intersect

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on November 10th, 2015 by Stevenson Swanson – Be the first to comment

Stevenson Swanson is the Science Media Manager at The New York Botanical Garden.

Dr. Ina Vandebroek, Ph.D.

Dr. Ina Vandebroek

When Ina Vandebroek, Ph.D., started to study how immigrant Caribbean communities use traditional plant-based medicines in their health care, she soon realized that her subjects often did not tell their doctors about the various remedies they are using.

To help bridge this gap, Dr. Vandebroek, the Matthew Calbraith Perry Assistant Curator of Economic Botany and the director of the Caribbean Program at the Institute of Economic Botany of The New York Botanical Garden, has held nearly 50 training sessions for 740 medical students and practicing physicians.

The goal of these sessions is to raise awareness among health-care practitioners about traditional plant-based medicines so they can communicate better with their patients, build trust, and identify potentially harmful drug interactions between mainstream pharmaceuticals and the active chemicals in traditional remedies.


The shelves at a Bronx botanica, a store where traditional plant-based remedies are sold.

After initially focusing on immigrants from the Dominican Republic, Dr. Vandebroek has now expanded her research project to include Jamaican immigrants. Her research is supported in part by a World of Difference grant from the Cigna Foundation, which announced last week that it was renewing the grant for a second year.

Dr. Vandebroek recently wrote about the importance of understanding immigrant health care practices for “The Doctor’s Tablet,” a blog at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, where Dr. Vandebroek has held several training sessions for its health care professionals. You can read her post here.

From Student to Teacher: A Conversation with a Former NYBG Graduate Student

Posted in Past and Present on November 3rd, 2015 by Stevenson Swanson – Be the first to comment

Stevenson Swanson is the Science Media Manager at The New York Botanical Garden.

Dr. Lawrence Kelly & Dr. Natalia Pabón-Mora

Dr. Lawrence Kelly & Dr. Natalia Pabón-Mora

Like most scientific research institutions, The New York Botanical Garden regularly hosts visiting scientists, but it’s especially gratifying to welcome back former graduate students who have gone on to important positions elsewhere.

That was the case recently when Natalia Pabón-Mora, Ph.D., returned to the Garden for several weeks. Dr. Pabón-Mora, who received her Ph.D. in 2012, is currently a professor at the Universidad de Antioquia in Medellin, Colombia.

She took a break from her research to talk with Lawrence M. Kelly, Ph.D., Director of the Commodore Matthew Perry Graduate Studies Program at the Botanical Garden, about what attracted her to the Garden as a place to study plant science.
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New Jersey Transplants “Lichen” Their New Home

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on October 23rd, 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 in the Institute of Systematic Botany, both at The New York Botanical Garden. Lichens are their primary research interest.

Old man’s beard (Usnea strigosa) on the trunk of an oak tree.

Old man’s beard (Usnea strigosa) on the trunk of an oak tree.

In April, two species of lichens made their way from the Rutgers Field Station in New Jersey to the Thain Family Forest here at The New York Botanical Garden. You might be wondering how they are faring six months later. We took a walk into the forest recently to check in on them.

They’re still alive! A number of them, however, have mysteriously disappeared.

The old man’s beard (Usnea strigosa) hanging on the branches are healthier than those that were attached directly to the trunk of the tree. The reindeer lichen (Cladonia subtenuis) that were nestled deeply into the leaf litter are healthiest, though animals disturbed some of these lichens and they are now fragmented across the ground. About 20 percent of the transplanted lichens are nowhere to be seen. They were likely taken by birds and squirrels living in the forest to be added to their nests.
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Ancient Wisdom, Modern Practices: Three Decades of Studying the Plants and People of Belize

Posted in Books: Past and Present on October 16th, 2015 by Michael Balick – Be the first to comment

Michael J. Balick, Ph.D., is Vice President for Botanical Science at The New York Botanical Garden and Director and Philecology Curator of the Botanical Garden’s Institute of Economic Botany. For more than 30 years, he has studied the relationship between plants and people, working with traditional cultures in tropical, subtropical, and desert environments around the world.

1015-Messages-from-the-Gods-Cover-800x1190Many scientists who study environmental topics focus on a geographic region, at least for part of their careers. Why? It seems that the longer you work in an area, the more you learn, and the more precise your observations and conclusions can be. And that means that the products of one’s studies, including identifying and establishing conservation areas, can be carried out efficiently.

I first went to Belize in 1987 and established a wonderful partnership with naprapathic physicians Drs. Rosita Arvigo and Gregory Shropshire. Together, we carried out a study that included an inventory of the country’s flora, publication of a primary health care manual based on local knowledge, and a general ethnobotany that documents the useful plants of the region. A few months ago we celebrated the publication of the ethnobotany book, Messages from the Gods: A Guide to the Useful Plants of Belize, published by The New York Botanical Garden and Oxford University Press.

In addition to publication of three books, the program produced teaching materials for local students, established a conservation area, developed training programs for plant collectors, investigated the pharmacological potential of the flora, enhanced economic livelihoods, strengthened the local ecotourism industry, and trained graduate students, as well as many other contributions over a 27-year-period.

Drs. Arvigo and Shropshire continue to reside in Belize and are recognized for their many ongoing contributions to that nation. We hope you will enjoy the results of our explorations, undertaken in collaboration with hundreds of people in Belize—a real community effort!

To watch a video of a presentation that Drs. Balick and Arvigo gave at the Botanical Garden about their research in Belize, click above.

Messages from the Gods: A Guide to the Useful Plants of Belize is available here

A Long Way to Go: Protecting and Conserving Endangered Fungi

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on October 13th, 2015 by Naveed Davoodian – Be the first to comment

Naveed Davoodian is a Ph.D. candidate in the Commodore Matthew Perry Graduate Studies Program at The New York Botanical Garden and the City University of New York. His research is focused on the diversity, evolution, and conservation of fungi.

Sarcodon fuscoindicus

Sarcodon fuscoindicus, one of several fungal species that have been managed under a federal conservation plan for northwestern forests (Photo: Noah Siegel)

Despite the many benefits that fungi provide, conservation policies and actions have incorporated these critically important species in very limited ways. On a global scale, fungi lag significantly behind plants and animals in conservation efforts. The situation is, unfortunately, no different in the United States.

To illustrate this point, I examined and evaluated U.S. federal conservation policies that directly list fungal species. This analysis, which focused on the Endangered Species Act of 1973 and the Survey and Manage Standards and Guidelines of the Northwest Forest Plan, was published earlier this year in the journal Biodiversity and Conservation. While both of these frameworks have contributed positively to biodiversity conservation in the U.S., both currently suffer from obstacles hindering protection of fungi and other overlooked organisms.
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Welcome to the Family

Posted in New Plant Discoveries on October 2nd, 2015 by Douglas Daly – Be the first to comment

Douglas C. Daly, Ph.D., is the Director of the Institute of Systematic Botany and the B. A. Krukoff Curator of Amazonian Botany at The New York Botanical Garden. Among his research activities, he is a specialist in the Burseraceae (frankincense and myrrh) family of plants.


During this 2007 expedition on Brazil’s Rio Japiim, researchers collected a plant that was recently identified as a new discovery for that country.

trunk-1200x800Brazil, welcome to the Lepidobotryaceae.

The story of how this oddball plant family was found in Brazil for the first time is a perfect example of what could be called turbo-botany. It combines a tightly connected international network of taxonomic specialists, agile and constantly refreshed databases, a globally comprehensive herbarium, and digital imaging—all hinging on collecting plants in the field and getting the specimens in front of experienced eyes.

The plant at the center of this story was collected during a rapid flora survey of an area that was being considered for conservation as a state reserve in northwestern Acre, a state in western Brazil. Acre was the main geographic focus of my research for 25 years, in collaboration with colleagues at the Federal University of Acre. The project culminated in an analytical catalogue of 4,000 species, the first of its kind in that region. Just as important, it provided training for quite a few young Brazilian botanists.
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At a Crossroads for Native Plants

Posted in Events on September 25th, 2015 by Stevenson Swanson – Be the first to comment

Stevenson Swanson is the Science Media Manager at The New York Botanical Garden.

Native Plants Summit

A capacity audience filled the Ross Lecture Hall last week for The New York Botanical Garden’s Native Plants Summit, at which leading experts from academia, conservation groups, and private consulting practices discussed the current status, conservation, and outlook for the native plants of the Northeast.

In his welcoming remarks, Gregory Long, Chief Executive Officer and the William C. Steere Sr. President of the Botanical Garden, said that the Garden had been involved in studying and collecting the native plants of North America since its founding in 1891. He noted that the Garden’s founder, Nathaniel Lord Britton, had co-authored the first edition of a landmark flora of the plants of northeastern North America, the latest edition of which is now being prepared by the Garden scientist who organized the summit, Robert Naczi, Ph.D.
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A Most Unlikely Place for a BioBlitz

Posted in Learning Experiences on September 18th, 2015 by Daniel Atha – Be the first to comment

Daniel Atha is the Conservation Program Manager at The New York Botanical Garden. Richard Abbott, Ph.D., is a botanist at the Botanical Garden, where he works primarily on updating the Manual of Vascular Plants of Northeastern United States and Adjacent Canada. Donald McClelland, Ph.D., studied at the Garden and is currently Adjunct Assistant Professor at Baruch College.

Freshkills Park

Freshkills Park

Feeling like astronauts exploring an alien planet, the three of us conducted botanical investigations on the capped and newly vegetated mountains of garbage that is Freshkills Park—once the largest landfill in the world. Resembling a moonscape, only with methane-capturing wells and a thick mantle of grass, the mound at Freshkills Park is soon to become a public recreation area.
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