Plant Talk | Science Talk

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.
read more »

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.
read more »

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.
read more »

The Cure for What Ails You

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on September 14th, 2015 by Christian Primeau – 1 Comment

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

Cinchona in flower

Cinchona in flower

In my last blog post I examined coffee, the official beverage of NYC movers, shakers, and deal-makers and source of my favorite alkaloid, caffeine. This article is something of a sequel. While the consensus seems to be that a sequel is never as good as the original, I could muster a boatload of rabid Star Wars fans that would argue to the contrary. In any case, my sequel involves a frosty highball of fine aromatic gin, a juicy wedge of lime, and a comfortable seat in the shade—so how bad could it possibly be? The alternate ending is not so pleasurable—it features high fever, chills, profuse sweating, nausea, and a plethora of other equally objectionable symptoms. Intrigued? Confused? Let me elaborate.

Outside of a handful of plant geeks, most folks probably aren’t that familiar with trees of the genus Cinchona (pronounced “sin-cho-nah”). They are native to the tropical Andean region of South America with some species reaching north into Central America or west as far as French Polynesia. It’s a pretty tree by most standards. The big Cinchona pubescens in the Upland Rainforest house of the Conservatory bears large, soft, elliptic green leaves and attractive panicles of rose-pink flowers in spring. But truly—anyone can stand around and look pretty. What makes this tree so fascinating is what it can do.
read more »

Garden Scientists Pay Tribute to Dr. Oliver Sacks

Posted in Personalities in Science on September 4th, 2015 by Stevenson Swanson – Be the first to comment

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

Dr. Oliver Sacks with the Garden’s Patricia Holmgren, Ph.D.

Dr. Oliver Sacks with the Garden’s Patricia Holmgren, Ph.D.

Since his death on August 30, Dr. Oliver Sacks has been described as a latter-day Renaissance man who took a learned delight in many things—neurology, certainly, but also minerals, squids, and other cephalopods such as cuttlefish, and, most definitely, plants.

Dr. Sacks, who was a Board Member of The New York Botanical Garden and a 2011 recipient of the Botanical Garden’s Gold Medal, was especially fascinated with cycads and ferns, and the Garden scientists who specialize in those plants were among those at the Garden who knew him well.

Cycad expert Dennis Stevenson, Ph.D., the Garden’s Vice President for Botanical Research and Cullman Curator, recalled that Dr. Sacks, who for many years paid regular Wednesday visits to the Garden, enjoyed bringing together people from the various fields that appealed to his eclectic nature so they could learn from each other. Botanists learned about cephalopods from marine biologists; geologists learned about plant science from botanists.

“Oliver was always in a most subtle way teaching all of us about the world around us,” Dr. Stevenson said.
read more »

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.
read more »

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.
read more »

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.
read more »