Plant Talk | Science Talk

Stressed Out: How will Vietnam’s Unique Flat-Leaved Pine Respond to Climate Change?

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on December 2nd, 2016 by Stephanie Schmiege – Be the first to comment

Stephanie Schmiege, a Ph.D. candidate at the Commodore Matthew Perry Graduate Studies Program of The New York Botanical Garden and at the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Biology of Columbia University, is researching response of conifers to environmental stress under the direction of Drs. Dennis Stevenson and Kevin Griffin.


Looking out over Vietnam’s Central Highlands from the field station at Bidoup Nui Ba National Park

Looking out over Vietnam’s Central Highlands from the field station at Bidoup Nui Ba National Park

The unique flattened leaf morphology of Pinus krempfii.

The unique flattened leaf morphology of Pinus krempfii.

The Central Highlands of Vietnam are home to the world’s only known flat-leaved pine. Endemic to this area, Pinus krempfii was first discovered by French botanists, who were astounded by its unique leaves and even confused it with species from an entirely different family. Not only is it the only known pine with flat leaves, it is the only pine we know of that successfully survives in dense tropical forests. Scientists think that the flattened leaves may allow Pinus krempfii to absorb more light than most needle-leaved pines, which in turn facilitates its success in the tropics. However, flattened leaves require vulnerable tissues to transport water throughout the leaves. 

This trade-off may leave Pinus krempfii susceptible to changes in climate, particularly drought stress. Climate models for Southeast Asia forecast increasingly long dry periods. How will Pinus krempfii respond to increasing drought stress? Will the unique leaves that have assisted its survival in the tropics prove to be its undoing?

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The Pumpkin Ash: An Update on a Rare New York Tree

Posted in New Plant Discoveries on November 21st, 2016 by Daniel Atha – Be the first to comment

Daniel Atha is Director of Conservation Outreach for the Center for Conservation Strategy at The New York Botanical Garden.


Jim Coelho with pumpkin ash near the Bronx Zoo’s Reptile House. (Photos by Daniel Atha)

Jim Coelho with pumpkin ash near the Bronx Zoo’s Reptile House. (Photos by Daniel Atha)

I previously reported on the discovery of pumpkin ash trees in Central Park, expanding the known range of the species into Manhattan. Now, recent discoveries have expanded the range of the species in the Bronx as well, bringing the number of known populations of this rare tree in New York to five (four in the Bronx and one in Manhattan).

In 1903, Nathaniel Britton, co-founder of The New York Botanical Garden and one of the most influential botanists of the 20th Century, collected a specimen of a “wild” ash tree in what was then the Botanical Garden’s “North Meadow” (the site is now in the Bronx River Forest section of Bronx Park). Britton named the tree Fraxinus michauxii for André and François Michaux, a father-and-son team of 19th-century French botanists sent to catalog the arboreal treasures of North America. Taxonomists now consider Britton’s tree only a minor variant of Fraxinus profunda (the pumpkin ash) and not worthy of species distinction. The tree from which he collected the specimen is now gone, but its descendants are alive and well in the region, as we are discovering.
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Wanted: American Eel

Posted in Learning Experiences on November 2nd, 2016 by Laura Booth – Be the first to comment

Laura Booth is a Forest intern with The New York Botanical Garden.


American eel (Anguilla rostrata)

American eel (Anguilla rostrata)

A quicksilver flash diverts your eye from the Bronx River’s frothy flow over the 182nd St. dam at River Park. Was it just the remnants of a potato chip bag slithering downstream?

Look again, and quick! If you’re lucky, you could glimpse an American eel, Anguilla rostrata.

Against unfavorable odds, the American eel has persisted in the urban waterways of New York since the city’s inception—surviving years of industrial pollution, raw sewage dumping, and runoff. In recent years, their populations have entered a precipitous decline, driven in part by long-term effects of the damming of freshwater rivers and streams, which they require as habitat.

What makes this strange and wonderful species—its finely-scaled body coated in a mucous layer that is truly “slippery as an eel”—important?
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Audubon’s Final Journey: Botanical Relics Uncovered at NYBG

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on October 31st, 2016 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.


From the 1833 portrait of John James Audubon by Henry Inman. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

From the 1833 portrait of John James Audubon by Henry Inman. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

As the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium continues to digitize its 7.8 million preserved plant specimens for online access, one of the exciting aspects of our work is the opportunity to uncover a wide variety of historical treasures. Four specimens in particular recently grabbed my attention. Based on the label data, these pressed plants, suddenly pulled from obscurity, were collected during John James Audubon’s Quadrupeds expedition.

Born in Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) in 1785, naturalist and painter Audubon moved to France during childhood and permanently to the United States as a young man. Audubon’s name has long been synonymous with beautiful and dramatic paintings of birds in their natural habitats. The 435 life-sized paintings in his published work The Birds of America (1827-38, Havell Edition) continue to be treasured for their iconic style—most notably in 2010, when a first edition of this collection sold at Sotheby’s in London for a record-breaking $11.5 million.
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WeDigBio 2016: Crowdsourcing for Conservation and Climate Change Research

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on October 20th, 2016 by Lansing Moore – Be the first to comment

Charles Zimmerman is Herbarium Collections and Outreach Administrator for the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium at The New York Botanical Garden.


WeDigBio 2016CALLING ALL ENVIRONMENTAL STEWARDS AND CITIZEN SCIENTISTS!

For centuries, biologists have explored and documented the natural world, collecting the billions of specimens now stored in museums, universities, and field stations worldwide. In the past few years, The New York Botanical Garden and other institutions across the globe have made tremendous strides toward unleashing the treasure trove of information stored in these collections for researchers and the general public.

Now, there is a way you can help!

On Saturday, October 22nd, from 10:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., The New York Botanical Garden’s William and Lynda Steere Herbarium will partner with Fordham University to host a community-based Natural History Collection Bioblitz as part of WeDigBio 2016, a global four-day volunteering event focused on mobilizing biodiversity data from preserved museum specimens to advance scientific research.

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Podcast: Plants as Medicine

Posted in Videos and Lectures on October 14th, 2016 by Stevenson Swanson – Be the first to comment

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


In a new podcast from health insurer Cigna, Ina Vandebroek, Ph.D.—the Matthew Calbraith Perry Assistant Curator of Economic Botany and Caribbean Program Director at The New York Botanical Garden—discusses how she studies the ways in which Caribbean and Latino immigrants in New York use medicinal plants in their health care.

As part of her research, she delves into the traditional knowledge, beliefs, and practices of the Dominican and Jamaican communities and also carries out field research in the Dominican Republic and Jamaica.

Dr. Vandebroek talks about cultural beliefs about specific illnesses and herbal therapies that are recognized in these communities but unfamiliar in mainstream medicine, such as “evil eye.”

Putting her voluminous research to practical use, she has developed training activities with health care professionals to help them understand the traditional beliefs and health care practices of their Latino and Caribbean patients. Her aim is to give doctors and other providers the information and understanding they need to build trusting relationships with their immigrant patients—with fully informed, improved care as the ultimate goal.

You can listen to the 36-minute podcast here.

Dr. Vandebroek’s research is supported in part by a World of Difference grant from Cigna Foundation. 

Once Frozen in Ice, Now Frozen in Time: Artifacts of an Arctic Voyage

Posted in Nuggets from the Archives on September 23rd, 2016 by Lansing Moore – Be the first to comment

Sarah Dutton is a project coordinator in the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium, where she is working on a project to digitize the Steere Herbarium’s collection of algae.


Vega-in-winter-quarters

Vega in winter quarters

It is 1879, and for months you have been living aboard a creaking wooden steamship trapped in miles of shifting Arctic sea ice. When you venture above deck, the air is icy as you gaze across the polar landscape. Among your companions are several officers, 21 crewmen, six other European scientists of various disciplines, and a few hundred indigenous Chukchi people who live nearby.

Such was the experience of Dr. Frans Reinhold Kjellman, a botanist aboard the SS Vega during the Swedish Vega Expedition. The New York Botanical Garden’s project to digitize the algae collection in the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium has uncovered two algal specimens that Dr. Kjellman collected during this expedition, providing glimpses into a little-known but fascinating story of 19th century science and exploration.

Dr. Frans Reinhold Kjellman

Dr. Frans Reinhold Kjellman

The tale begins with Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld, a Finnish-Swedish scientist and explorer, who had led many successful Arctic expeditions by the time he proposed the Vega Expedition. This time, he planned to circumnavigate the Eurasian continent via the Arctic Ocean and the Bering Strait, or “North East Passage,” to prove that this was a viable route between Europe and the Pacific. The scientists on board the Vega were prepared to gather data about the geography, hydrography, meteorology, and natural history of the Arctic, much of which was still unexplored by Europeans at the time. Kjellman, who had accompanied Nordenskiöld on three previous voyages, was an authority on Arctic algae.

The SS Vega departed Sweden on June 22, 1878. On September 3, the ship began to encounter sea ice. The explorers continued, hugging the coast and searching for a clear way through the increasing ice. However, by the end of September, the ice thickening in front them could no longer be broken by the ship’s hull. They had reached Kolyutschin Bay, the last bay before the Bering Strait, but a belt of ice less than 7 miles wide barred their passage. In his book, The Voyage of the Vega round Asia and Europe, Nordenskiöld expresses regret over time that could have been saved along the journey. He believed that had the ship arrived at Kolyutschin Bay just a few hours earlier, they would have been able to continue. To rub salt in the wound, Nordenskiöld later learned that an American whaler had been anchored only a couple of miles away in open water on the same day the Vega was frozen in.

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Lichens Hold On Along America’s Vanishing Coast

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on September 16th, 2016 by Jessica Allen – Be the first to comment

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


Alligator River, North Carolina (by Andrei Muroz)

Alligator River, North Carolina (by Andrei Muroz)

The Mid-Atlantic Coastal Plain is a close neighbor to some of America’s largest cities, including New York and Philadelphia, but you’d be forgiven if you had never heard of it. This vast, low-lying region extends along the Atlantic coast from southern New Jersey through South Carolina and includes such well-known cities as Charleston and Norfolk and beaches that are enjoyed by millions of visitors every year, such as the Outer Banks of North Carolina.

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From Tree to Shining Tree: The Living Network under the Forest

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on September 7th, 2016 by Stevenson Swanson – Be the first to comment

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


NYBG fall forest foliage

That old saying about not being able to see the forest for the trees turns out to be more than just a metaphor.  Standing in the middle of a forest, it’s easy to see each tree as an individual, but in reality, the trees are bound together by a living network that proves beneficial not only for the trees—which get the minerals they need to grow to great heights—but also to the network, which gets a steady supply of nutrients from the trees to keep it alive.

What is this network? That’s the mystery that award-winning science journalist Robert Krulwich sets out to answer in a recent episode of public radio’s Radiolab.

His scientific sleuthing brought him to the Thain Family Forest, the 50-acre old-growth forest at The New York Botanical Garden, where he interviewed Curator of Mycology Roy Halling, Ph.D., the Botanical Garden’s expert on all things fungal. That’s a pretty broad hint about the nature of the network, by the way.

As with all Radiolab stories, the result is an adventure in imaginative reporting and storytelling that revels in the wonders of the world around us. Or, in this case, beneath us.

You can hear the episode here.

Blast from the Past: Plant Specimens From One of America’s Cold War Nuclear Test Sites

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on August 25th, 2016 by Colette Berg – Be the first to comment

Colette Berg, an intern in the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium at The New York Botanical Garden, recently graduated from Fordham University, where she studied environmental science. In January, she will begin a Master’s in Biology program at Southeast Missouri University, focusing on plant ecology.


Operation Crossroads commanding officer Vice Admiral William Blandy and his wife slice into an Operation Crossroads cake following the first Bikini Atoll nuclear tests in 1946.

Operation Crossroads commanding officer Vice Admiral William Blandy and his wife slice into an Operation Crossroads cake following the first Bikini Atoll nuclear tests in 1946.

Every day as an intern at the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium, I transcribe the labels on pressed plant specimens so data about the specimens can be made accessible online. As I type out the collector’s name, date of collection, and location, I catch a glimpse of the stories behind the specimens—stories of science and politics and history.

Recently, one particular label caught my eye. In 1946, William Randolph Taylor, a University of Michigan botanist who specialized in algae, traveled to the Marshall Islands in the South Pacific with Operation Crossroads, a military mission to test atomic bombs at the remote Bikini Atoll. Taylor’s 1990 obituary described him as a man who “worked in the years of brass-fitted monocular microscopes” and “entered the sea in long rubber boots while holding a glass-bottomed bucket.” Before the bombs were detonated, Taylor surveyed the vegetation on the island. One can imagine him peering through his bucket in the surf as he collected some of the specimens shown here. read more »