Plant Talk | Science Talk

Earth Day Everyday: Citizen Scientists Making Plant Research Available to All

Posted in Applied Science on April 21st, 2014 by Barbara Thiers – Be the first to comment

Barbara M. Thiers, Ph.D., is the Patricia K. Holmgren Director of the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium and Vice President for Science Administration at The New York Botanical Garden.


Notes from Nature

Every year around Earth Day, many people wonder if there is anything they can do that will make a difference in the effort to understand and preserve our environment. Of course there is! There are all kinds of volunteer projects for all sorts of interests. Here at The New York Botanical Garden, for instance, volunteers are helping us make a critical part of our scientific collection available online so researchers everywhere can have easy access to the information.

The William and Lynda Steere Herbarium is taking part in a citizen-scientist transcription project called Notes from Nature, which enlists volunteers to help make the contents of the world’s biological collections accessible to the public through the Internet. Notes from Nature is part of Zooniverse, which has enlisted volunteers to look for new planets and transcribe climate data from ships’ logs. Notes from Nature is celebrating its first anniversary this week and also an important milestone: its volunteers have completed a half million transcriptions!
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From the Field: Bill Buck in Cape Horn 2014, Part 9

Posted in Travelogue on April 18th, 2014 by Bill Buck – Be the first to comment

January 20, 2014; Puerto Maxwell, Isla Hermite, Chile (55°48’S, 67°32’W)

Cape Horn 2014

Last night we stayed at Caleta de Los Ríos on the south coast of Isla Wollaston (55°47.5’S, 67°20.5’W). To sea novices like us, it didn’t appear any better than Caleta St. Martin, which we had just left behind. This is why we hire an experienced crew. By the time we reached port, the wind had picked up considerably. We tied up next to another fishing boat that was already in the harbor. The ships’ crews knew each other and promptly went visiting.

The wind continued. I couldn’t be sure without an anemometer, but from growing up in Florida I believed we were experiencing hurricane-force winds of over 75 mph. Then the rain started, blowing in horizontal sheets. I was mesmerized by the force of it all, and despite dropping temperatures I couldn’t bring myself to go inside.
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Thinking Outside the Box about Weeds, Wildmeat, and More

Posted in Travelogue on April 17th, 2014 by Ina Vandebroek – Be the first to comment

Ina Vandebroek, Ph.D., is an ethnomedical research specialist at The New York Botanical Garden‘s Institute of Economic Botany. One of her research interests is studying how immigrant populations in New York City use traditional plant-based remedies in their health care.


From left to right: Dr. Thiago Araujo (BR), Dr. Ina Vandebroek (USA), Dr. Ulysses Albuquerque (BR), Dr. Ana Ladio (AR), Dr. Romulo Alves (BR)

From left to right: Dr. Thiago Araujo (BR), Dr. Ina Vandebroek (USA), Dr. Ulysses Albuquerque (BR), Dr. Ana Ladio (AR), Dr. Romulo Alves (BR)

The science of ethnobiology studies the relationships among peoples, nature, and culture. It is a multidisciplinary field that uses methods from the social and natural sciences, including botany, ecology, agriculture, medicine, zoology, anthropology, archaeology and others. Ethnobiologists have diverse research interests, and an international conference presents a great opportunity to learn from specialists.
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Ackerman’s Orchids: Studying—and Sometimes Growing—Some Stars of the Plant World

Posted in Personalities in Science on April 15th, 2014 by Stevenson Swanson – Be the first to comment

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


JDA in SabaFrom the crowds that attend The New York Botanical Garden’s annual orchid exhibition, it’s clear that this family of flowering plants exerts a fascination on gardeners and plant lovers almost without equal in the horticultural world.

Count Prof. James D. Ackerman among the devotees. From his days as a graduate student in northern California, he’s devoted his scientific career to the study of Orchidaceae. Prof. Ackerman, who teaches biology at the University of Puerto Rico, is the lead author of Orchid Flora of the Greater Antilles, recently published by NYBG Press.

With full scientific treatments of 594 orchid species, the book covers the largest islands in the West Indies, including Cuba, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, and Hispaniola, the island that comprises the Dominican Republic and Haiti.

I had a chance to chat with Prof. Ackerman during his recent visit to the Botanical Garden, where he gave a talk about his time in the field cataloging the orchids of the Greater Antilles. He was also planning to see The Orchid Show: Key West Contemporary, which closes next Monday, April 21.

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From the Field: Bill Buck in Cape Horn 2014, Part 8

Posted in Travelogue on April 11th, 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 19, 2014; Caleta Saint Martin, Isla Hermite, Chile (55°51.5′S, 67°34’W)

Exploring Isla Hermite

Exploring Isla Hermite

Yesterday evening, as we navigated along the Beagle Channel, the clear southeastern sky gave me hope that we would reach our target area unhindered. The engines started at 4 a.m., and everyone hurried to use the bathroom, having been warned of rough seas. However, my Pollyanna premonition seems to have been correct as we never saw bad waves.

We were scheduled to reach our safe harbor at Isla Grevy by 8 a.m. Stepping out onto the deck, I found islands all around us, and relatively calm waters meant we were bypassing Isla Grevy and heading straight to Isla Hermite, one of our main targets. I could have jumped up and down in delight! It would be some time yet until we arrived, but after waiting weeks to reach this island, what was another few hours?
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Life History: A Close Relative of Land Plants Sprouts and Grows Underwater

Posted in Videos and Lectures on April 10th, 2014 by Robert Stewart – Be the first to comment

Robert A. Stewart is a student at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York. He recently studied at The New York Botanical Garden under the direction of Assistant Curator Kenneth G. Karol, Ph.D., a specialist in algae.


CharaSpecies of algae in the genus Chara are commonly called stoneworts or muskgrasses and belong to the freshwater green-algal family Characeae. Given that the Characeae are close relatives of land plants, it is very important to understand their life history if we want to understand the early evolution of land plants.

A life history is the series of growth and reproductive changes an organism undergoes throughout its life. A key difference between the life history of land plants and the Characeae is that alternation of generations is found in land plants but not in the Characeae, as far as we know.

I studied the life history of Chara rusbyana with my mentor at The New York Botanical Garden, Assistant Curator Kenneth G. Karol, Ph.D., by examining living cultures and consulting the botanical literature. Based on this project, I produced a short animated film about Chara rusbyana under the supervision of Professor Robin Starbuck of the Sarah Lawrence College film department.
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A Unique and Lovely Little Fungal Collection

Posted in Nuggets from the Archives on April 7th, 2014 by Ellen Bloch – 1 Comment

Ellen Diane Bloch is the Collections Manager of the Cryptogamic Herbarium, part of the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium. The Cryptogamic Herbarium includes the fungi collection.


Eaton's Fungal Collection

The fungal collection of Elizabeth Eaton Morse

One of my favorite discoveries in the 30 years that I have worked in the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium is an odd and beautiful collection of fungi. Packed away in a charming box from Hink’s Department Store in Berkeley, California, is an assortment of nearly 40 specimens collected in Mount Desert Island, Maine, in 1935. How did these dried fungal specimens from Maine come to be placed in a box from a California retailer and then end up at The New York Botanical Garden?

To answer that question, it helps to know that the fungi were collected by Elizabeth Eaton Morse, who devoted much of her life to collecting and studying fungi. Born in Framingham, Massachusetts, in 1864, Morse taught elementary school for several years before entering Wellesley College, where she graduated with a diploma from the School of Art in 1891. After decades of teaching and supervising in Massachusetts and New York City schools, Morse returned to Wellesley College, receiving a B.A. with a major in botany in 1926.
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From the Field: Bill Buck in Cape Horn 2014, Part 7

Posted in Travelogue on April 4th, 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 18, 2014; Puerto Toro, Isla Navarino, Chile (55°04’S, 67°04.5’W)

2014's expedition ship, the Dona Pilar, at dock

This year’s expedition ship, the Doña Pilar, at dock

Our time in Puerto Williams, an interruption in our fieldwork, raced by. We arrived at 8:30 a.m. on the 16th after a four-and-a-half-hour trip from a collecting site on the northwest coast of Navarino. We decided to have lunch and dinner at a local restaurant; the stable environment would be a welcome change after so many meals on the Doña Pilar.

After lunch, I skipped flan and headed back to the house where we were staying to be picked up for a public meeting with some politicians who had come to Puerto Williams for the occasion. I was scheduled to speak in support of creating a ministry of science for Chile. But due to a misunderstanding, I wasn’t the only one they wanted, so we swung by the restaurant to pick up more warm bodies. Barb Andreas, Barbara Murray, and John Brinda volunteered.
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Ending a Research Drought in the Australian Outback

Posted in Travelogue on April 3rd, 2014 by Dennis Stevenson – Be the first to comment

Dennis Wm. Stevenson, Ph.D., is Vice President for Laboratory Research at The New York Botanical Garden. One of his major research interests is plant evolution.


Dennis Stevenson with Dasypogon hookeri. Photo by Paula Rudall, Royal Botanic Garden, Kew.

Dr. Dennis Stevenson with Dasypogon hookeri, locally known as the pineapple bush

I spent the month of November 2013 in Australia on fieldwork for a project on the coevolution of certain plant groups and the specialized wasps that pollinate them. The plan was to collect the plants with their pollinators in the act, and to that end, I was accompanied by an entomologist, Dr. James Carpenter of the American Museum of Natural History. We also had collaborators from various herbaria and natural history museums across the continent.

The itinerary was a drive of more than 3,000 miles from Adelaide in South Australia to Brisbane in Queensland, following the River Murray in South Australia and then another river, the Darling, to Broken Hill, a mining city in New South Wales. From there, our route took us to Bourke, then Cunnamulla, and east to Brisbane. At both the start and end of the itinerary there was rain, so late spring flowers were in full bloom. But in between, things did not go quite according to plan because the Outback was in deep drought. In Cunnamulla, a police officer told us it had been more than a year since the last rainfall!
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From Intern To Leader: A Talk With The Garden’s New Head of Science

Posted in Personalities in Science on April 1st, 2014 by Stevenson Swanson – Be the first to comment

Barbara M. Thiers, Ph.D., is the Patricia K. Holmgren Director of the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium and Vice President for Science Administration at The New York Botanical Garden. Stevenson Swanson is the Botanical Garden’s Science Media Manager.


Barbara ThiersAs the longtime Director of the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium, Barbara M. Thiers, Ph.D., already had a demanding job as the head of one of the world’s four largest collections of preserved plant specimens. But recently she added a new title—and new responsibilities—when she was named Vice President for Science Administration at The New York Botanical Garden.

In that role, she oversees all staff, programmatic initiatives, and operations in the Botanical Garden’s Science Division, one of the leading centers for studying plants at all levels, from the whole organism down to its DNA.

The promotion has made her one of the few women ever to lead scientific research at a major botanical institution.

I recently sat down with Dr. Thiers in her office on the fourth floor of the Garden’s Library building for a conversation about her life and career, including how she spent many of her weekends as a child and how long it took her to decide she wanted to stay at the Garden after her arrival as a postdoctoral intern in 1981.
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