Plant Talk | Science Talk

NYBG Grad Students: Annie Virnig

Posted in NYBG Grad Students on July 17th, 2014 by Matt Newman – Be the first to comment

Annie VirnigAnnie Virnig is no stranger to tackling formidable challenges. Whether she’s hiking through the dense tropical forests of Colombia in search of rare plant species, noting her findings in the laboratory, or blocking a header on the soccer field, she employs the same diligence and problem-solving tactics to ensure the best possible result.

As a grad student at NYBG, Virnig’s work focuses on the neotropical blueberries that so often cause a stir in our Haupt Conservatory. The exotic shapes and colors of the Conservatory’s collection are only a small sample of their incredible diversity in South America, where the wealth of species goes well beyond the common blueberries, cranberries, and huckleberries that we associate with this plant tribe in the U.S. Zoning in on the historic and cultural uses of these plants, as well as the antioxidants and other health benefits provided by them, Virnig has found herself drawn to the town of El Queremal in Colombia, where an eponymous flower has captured imaginations for centuries.
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Rockefeller Center: Botanical History Underfoot

Posted in Nuggets from the Archives on July 11th, 2014 by Lisa Vargues – Be the first to comment

Lisa Vargues is a Curatorial Assistant at The New York Botanical Garden’s William and Lynda Steere Herbarium. Her work includes digitizing plant specimens, historical and new, from around the world for the C. V. Starr Virtual Herbarium and writing for the NYBG Press.


While admiring Rockefeller Center’s renowned attractions, such as the famous 1934 gilded sculpture of Prometheus, it is easy to miss an inconspicuous reminder of the site’s importance in American botanical history. Looking toward the middle of Rockefeller Center’s Channel Gardens, directly behind a bronze sculpture of a sea nymph riding a fish, you will find the following plaque:

Hosack Plaque

The land now occupied by Rockefeller Center was once the location of the Elgin Botanic Garden, the first botanical garden in New York State and one of the earliest in the United States. It was established by Dr. David Hosack in 1801 and is often referred to as a forerunner of The New York Botanical Garden. Dr. Hosack, who tended Alexander Hamilton’s fatal wound following his duel with Aaron Burr, was a highly regarded physician and Columbia College professor of botany and materia medica. He created the Elgin Botanic Garden, named after his father’s birthplace in Scotland, primarily to teach his students botany and the medicinal properties of plants.
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Detecting an Invasive Plant Before It’s Too Late

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on July 3rd, 2014 by Daniel Atha – Be the first to comment

Daniel Atha is a Research Associate at The New York Botanical Garden. Jessica Schuler is Director of the Botanical Garden’s Thain Family Forest. Sarah Lumban Tobing is a Project Manager for Forestry, Horticulture and Natural Resources at the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation.


Purple keman (Corydalis incisa)

Purple keman (Corydalis incisa)

The latest threat to our local environment comes from an Asian plant that resembles wild chervil when young and has the potential to out-compete native species.

A member of the fumitory family, Corydalis incisa, or purple keman, is native to China, Korea, and Japan. It was first discovered growing wild in North America during the 2005 Bronx Park BioBlitz, north of The New York Botanical Garden.

A rapid survey of the same area in May revealed populations on both sides of the Bronx River and extending throughout the annual floodplain, consisting of both first-year seedlings and second-year flowering and fruiting plants. Within one heavily infested area, 32 seedlings were counted in an area of 100 square centimeters (a little more than 15 square inches).

Also this year, we found a previously undocumented infestation, 7.5 miles northeast in the Bronx River Reservation of Westchester County, representing the second known population in North America and the first report of the species for Westchester County.  The sighting was immediately reported to Westchester County Parks Department and we are now working with Brenda Bates of the Conservation Division to document and monitor the plants.
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Why Study Plants?

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on June 30th, 2014 by Lawrence Kelly – Be the first to comment

Lawrence M. Kelly, Ph.D., is Director of Graduate Studies at The New York Botanical Garden; Barbara A. Ambrose, Ph.D., is Cullman Assistant Curator in Plant Genomics; and Dennis W. Stevenson, Ph.D., is Vice President for Laboratory Research.


Microscopic green alga Spirogyra, with its spirally arranged chloroplasts. Photograph from the Delwiche lab.

Microscopic green alga Spirogyra, with its spirally arranged chloroplasts. Photograph from the Delwiche lab.

Plants produce 98 percent of atmospheric oxygen through photosynthesis. Everything we eat comes directly or indirectly from plants. One quarter of prescription drugs come directly from plants or are plant derivatives. Fossilized plants provide energy in the form of fossil fuels such as oil and coal.

Given the importance of plants in every aspect of our lives, humans study plants to understand processes that are critical to our own survival and to the health of the planet. Beyond their obvious importance, plants have played key roles in a broad range of biological discoveries that have helped us understand some of the most fascinating mysteries of life.
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Inside the Steere Herbarium

Posted in Videos and Lectures on June 12th, 2014 by Stevenson Swanson – Be the first to comment

Stevenson Swanson is The New York Botanical Garden’s Science Media Manager.


The William & Lynda Steere Herbarium

The William & Lynda Steere Herbarium

One of the most important research facilities at The New York Botanical Garden is the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium, but unless you’re a plant scientist or seriously interested in botany, chances are you’re unfamiliar with what a herbarium is and why it’s crucial to the task of understanding and conserving Earth’s plant life.

Simply put, a herbarium is a library of plants—7.3 million preserved plant specimens, in the case of the Steere Herbarium. That makes it the largest herbarium in the Western Hemisphere and one of the four largest in the world.

But what can researchers learn from all those specimens? How do they use the knowledge stored there? How was the Steere Herbarium founded, and does it contain just the things that average people think of as plants—trees, flowers and shrubs? What about seaweed, moss, lichens and mushrooms?
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Exploring the Mountains of Eastern Cuba, Part 3

Posted in Travelogue on June 9th, 2014 by Fabian Michelangeli – 1 Comment

Fabian A. Michelangeli, Ph.D, is an Associate Curator of the Institute of Systematic Botany at The New York Botanical Garden. His research focuses in part on the evolution, identification, and classification of neotropical plants.


In this last post about Cuban Johnny berries and meadow beauties, I want to show some of the species found in the northeastern part of the island. The mountain ranges in this area—the Sierra de Moa, Baracoa, Nipe and Cristal—are all rich in minerals and have unique soils that contain high concentrations of metals. These metals are toxic for many plants, but this plant family, the Melastomataceae, has adapted to these conditions.

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Calycogonium glabratum, Miconia baracosensis, Miconia uninervis, Ossaea moensis, and Ossaea puciflora are not closely related, but they have all evolved small, hard leaves as an adaptation to the high toxicity of the soils they inhabit.
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A 21st Century Guide to Nature’s Most Powerful Plants

Posted in Book on June 3rd, 2014 by Michael Balick – 1 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.


21st Century HerbalAll of the scientists at The New York Botanical Garden have stories to tell about our work, our travels, and the people we meet along the way. I’ve had the opportunity to tell some of my stories and provide lessons about the importance of nature and botanical research in a new book, Rodale’s 21st Century Herbal: A Practical Guide for Healthy Living Using Nature’s Most Powerful Plants.

Rodale’s 21st Century Herbal, from the publisher of Organic Gardening and many other health and wellness magazines, is written from the perspective of ethnobotany, the study of the relationship between plants and people.

My goal was to tell the story of how plants have been used as medicines, foods, spices, dyes, cosmetics, and other things from our earliest days as a species to the present day, with the current explosion of interest in gardening, herbal medicine, and different dietary patterns.
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Exploring the Mountains of Eastern Cuba, Part 2

Posted in From the Field on May 30th, 2014 by Fabian Michelangeli – 3 Comments

Fabian A. Michelangeli, Ph.D., is an Associate Curator of the Institute of Systematic Botany at The New York Botanical Garden. His research focuses in part on the evolution, identification, and classification of neotropical plants.


Miconia victorini

Miconia victorini

In my last post I recounted how my colleagues and I explored eastern Cuba, collecting different members of the family Melastomataceae. Only a dozen species in this group, which includes plants known as meadow beauties, princess flowers and Johnny berries, are found in the United States, but it is very diverse in the tropics. In Cuba, there are more than 200 species of Melastomataceae, and more than 150 of those are endemic, found only on that island.

Here are some representatives from the Sierra Maestra Mountains that we encountered on our expedition. Most of these species are adapted to the cloud forest conditions of the mountains.
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From the Field: Bill Buck in Cape Horn 2014, Part 14

Posted in Travelogue on May 27th, 2014 by Bill Buck – 1 Comment

William R. Buck, Ph.D., is the Mary Flagler Cary Curator of Botany at The New York Botanical Garden. Every January for the past three years, Dr. Buck, a moss specialist, and a team of colleagues have journeyed to the Cape Horn region at the southern tip of South America to document the area’s rich diversity of mosses and search for new species. This is the last in his series of posts about his 2014 field trip.


January 30, 2014; Punta Arenas, Chile

Bill Buck

Bill Buck

The trip is all but over. We arrived in Punta Arenas at midnight between the 27th and 28th, almost a day early. I asked Ernesto Davis to phone ahead and see if our hotel reservation could be updated. After a rough night the day before, everyone was ready for stable beds and hot showers. Fortunately, the hotel had space and our rooms were ready when we arrived, luggage in hand.

We returned to the ship early the next morning to gather our collections. The entire crew was in attendance when we arrived at the trusty Doña Pilar. We still had specimens on the dryers and promptly started dealing with them. There was little wind, so I was able to close up my paper bags on the deck. Every last one of my collections was completely dry. Everyone else still had damp specimens that would need additional time before being packed up.

Early in the expedition, I asked the crew if, after our trip, I might have the small Magellanic flag that the Doña Pilar flew. Ships on previous expeditions only flew the Chilean flag, which I asked for and received during our last trip. Perhaps they hadn’t flown the Magellanic flag because the captain was from further north, in Chiloé. Regardless, I was delighted when this year’s captain presented me with the tattered flag that had flown over the ship that had served us so well. I collect flags, in part as a true souvenir of my collecting localities. Some hold special memories. I will proudly display this one in my New York office.
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From the Field: Bill Buck in Cape Horn 2014, Part 13

Posted in Travelogue on May 16th, 2014 by Bill Buck – Be the first to comment

William R. Buck, Ph.D., is the Mary Flagler Cary Curator of Botany at The New York Botanical Garden. Every January for the last three years, Dr. Buck, a moss specialist, and a team of colleagues have journeyed to the Cape Horn region at the southern tip of South America to document the area’s rich diversity of mosses and search for new species.


January 27, 2014; in transit to Punta Arenas

GlacierTime has lost meaning. We’re on the long trek back to Punta Arenas now, which is supposed to take about a day and a half. We arrived in Puerto Williams two nights ago (could it really have been only two nights ago?). We transferred ashore for one of those nights and stayed in the Universidad de Magallanes house. Our top priorities were hot showers and dealing with leftover specimens—in that order.

We went to dinner at the only restaurant in town that could handle a group of nine people. This was to be Rina Charlín’s last meal with us since she was staying behind in Puerto Williams. Fortunately, our prior arrangements were successful, and we surprised Matt von Konrat at the end of the meal with a cake for his 10th wedding anniversary. He seemed genuinely touched and took a photo of himself with the cake to send to his wife in Chicago.

After cake, Matt and Laura Briscoe hurried back to the university house for a late night of photographing oil-bodies, the distinctive, oil-filled structures found in the cells of most hepatics, or liverworts. It’s important to photograph them quickly because they disintegrate when the plant dries out. Matt and Laura didn’t get to bed until nearly 4 a.m. The final tally for the number of oil-bodies photographed this year is 140. This will be an amazing addition to a flora of a remote area of the world. I was also pleased to hear that one of the small hepatics I picked up proved interesting and unusual.
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