Plant Talk | Science Talk

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 »

Shaggy Ink Cap: A Mushroom that Can Clean Up a Mess

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on July 9th, 2015 by Maya Jaffe – 2 Comments

Maya Jaffe graduated from Florida International University and has had an internship at the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium, where she has worked on a project to digitize macrofungi, the largest types of fungi, including mushrooms.

[Illustration by Geo. E. Morris (1906), property of NYBG]

I sit behind drawn curtains in a dark room, illuminated only by light tents that are used for taking pictures. It’s another day on the job as an intern in the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium, where I am helping in an effort to digitize the New York Botanical Garden’s macrofungi. As I make my way alphabetically through the Agaricaceae family, I come across a shaggy ink cap specimen, Coprinus comatus, with a beautiful illustration.
read more »

Umbrella Tree Woes: Well-known Houseplants Part Company

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on June 30th, 2015 by Gregory Plunkett – 1 Comment

Gregory M. Plunkett, Ph.D., is Director and Curator of the Cullman Program for Molecular Systematics at The New York Botanical Garden.

A Schefflera plant, shown in its native habitat on New Caledonia, an island in the South Pacific

A Schefflera plant, shown in its native habitat on New Caledonia, an island in the South Pacific

In 1912, the eminent horticulturalist Harry James Veitch helped move the Royal Horticultural Society’s Great Spring Show to the Chelsea section of London, where his family’s famous nursery firm, James Veitch & Sons, was headquartered. The show was thereafter known as the Chelsea Flower Show, an annual event that is considered the world’s most famous horticultural exhibition. But while Harry was busy running the family firm, his brother John Gould Veitch was one of a select group of Victorian explorers who traveled the world seeking new plants to bring into cultivation.

One of these plants was Aralia elegantissima, which was first introduced to the world during the Great Spring Show of 1873. Since then, it’s been called by many other names, including Dizygotheca elegantissima, Schefflera elegantissima, and Plerandra elegantissima. As the common element in those names suggests, its leaves are “most elegant,” with slender, dark-green and smartly toothed leaflets, not unlike those of Cannabis. As it turns out, wild populations of this “False Aralia” are entirely restricted to the South Pacific island of New Caledonia, where Veitch originally discovered it. Today, it’s widely cultivated as a “tropical foliage plant,” gracing shopping centers and fast-food restaurants from New York to London to Tokyo. John Veitch would be duly proud of the success of his introduction. Unfortunately, the plant has not fared as well in its native New Caledonia, where it is on the brink of extinction due to habitat loss.

read more »

The Buzz

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on June 29th, 2015 by Christian Primeau – Be the first to comment

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

Coffea arabica

Coffea arabica

The dictionary in my office defines an alkaloid as “one of a large class of organic, nitrogen-containing ring compounds of vegetable origin and sometimes synthesized that have a bitter taste, are usually water-insoluble and alcohol-soluble, that combine with acids without the loss of a water molecule to form water-soluble hydrochlorides, hydrobromides or…”

Need I continue?

Based on this definition, you might conclude that a blog post about an alkaloid is as exhilarating as collecting paperclips. Who could blame you? But alkaloids are nothing if not incredible. Mind you, this is coming from a man who, I’m ashamed to admit, spent much of college chemistry struggling to stay awake or attempting to secure a date with the brunette in the front row (both hopeless endeavors).

I’d be willing to bet most of you love alkaloids, too…or at least one in particular. It’s okay to admit an alkaloid is on your mind the instant you wake in the morning, during that staff meeting or interminable chemistry lecture. It doesn’t make you a bad person. Better than 80% of Americans are in the same boat, because eight out of 10 Americans simply can’t live without their daily coffee. As a recent and very reluctant convert to decaf, I can attest to the fact that without caffeine (an alkaloid!) the world is a far different place. Navigating The City that Never Sleeps without caffeine is like entering a NASCAR race on a rusty tricycle with a broken wheel and no seat. Sure, it can be done—but the risks are incalculable.
read more »

Tracking a Freshwater Invader across New York and New England

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on June 23rd, 2015 by Robin Sleith – Be the first to comment

Robin Sleith, a Ph.D. candidate in the Commodore Matthew Perry Graduate Studies Program at The New York Botanical Garden, is researching algae under the direction of Kenneth G. Karol, Ph.D., Associate Curator in the Cullman Program for Molecular Systematics and the Botanical Garden’s specialist in algae.

Robin Sleith algae samples New York State lakes ponds invasive species

The 400 lakes surveyed in the summer of 2014
Credit: Robin Sleith

Robin Sleith starry stonewort algae Nitellopsis obtusa

The star-shaped bulbil of Nitellopsis obtusa that gives rise to it common name, starry stonewort
Credit: Robin Sleith

This summer, a team from The New York Botanical Garden will set out for the second year to document the diversity of green algae that live in hundreds of lakes in the northeastern United States and determine the distribution of an invasive freshwater alga species, Nitellopsis obtusa, or starry stonewort.

Starry stonewort, which is native to Europe and western Asia, is replacing native plant species and threatening the habitat and food sources of small fish and invertebrates in the lakes where it is found. Growing to a height of seven feet in water as deep as 30 feet, starry stonewort forms dense mats that out-compete native species.

First discovered in the St. Lawrence Seaway in 1978, it has spread at an alarming rate through the Great Lakes and into inland lakes in New York State. It is easily transported from lake to lake as plant debris caught in boat trailers.

Robin Sleith with starry stonewort (Nitellopsis obtusa). Robert Stewart

Graduate student Robin Sleith with starry stonewort (Nitellopsis obtusa). Note the setting: this alga is often found in areas of high human traffic.
Credit: Robert Stewart.

Last summer, we surveyed 400 lakes throughout New York State for starry stonewort and other green algae. Grappling hooks in hand, we traversed the state on week-long excursions, averaging 10 lakes per day. At each lake, we used the grappling hooks to gather algal specimens and also collected water-chemistry data and documented physical characteristics. There was no shortage of excitement on our journey, owing to multiple tornado warnings, many bear-sightings, and countless beautiful vistas.

We found starry stonewort in lakes across New York, from Jamestown to Potsdam, but did not find it within the boundaries of Adirondack Park. This is good news for the millions who visit the Park annually. The Adirondack region has a strong Watershed Stewardship Program, and we are partnering with this program to raise awareness about starry stonewort and the measures that can be taken—such as cleaning and fully drying boats and gear—to keep this invasive out of Adirondack lakes and ponds.

Now we are taking our grappling hooks to New England to conduct a similar survey of lakes, so stay tuned for more updates.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

As Summer Awaits, A Scientist Ponders Springtime at NYBG

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on June 18th, 2015 by Gregory Plunkett – Be the first to comment

Gregory M. Plunkett, Ph.D., is Director and Curator of the Cullman Program for Molecular Systematics at The New York Botanical Garden.


Magnolia salicifolia

What a pleasure it is to stroll through The New York Botanical Garden, especially during springtime. The landscape varies from hills to low places, from exposed vistas to the isolation of the ancient Thain Family Forest. Then there are the textures: deep rich soils, jagged bark, scoured bedrock outcroppings, and wide flat lawns. And throughout this season, it has been impossible to ignore an explosion of color—carpets of yellow daffodils, spires of white magnolias and pink cherries, and the deep purples of grape hyacinths—all set against the backdrop of the vibrant spring-greens of the renewed trees and grasses. Simply amazing.

But there’s more than one way to look at the Botanical Garden and the beauty of the plant world. In part, that’s what the Garden’s scientists do every day.

To understand this better, consider what it is like to stroll through a great art museum, such as the Louvre in Paris. Like the Garden, the Louvre is filled with great treasures for the eyes. The museum itself provides the great landscape, through which we can appreciate the various textures, ranging from the hard stone of Greco-Roman statues to the soft canvases of Renaissance paintings, the pliable wood of native arts, and the smooth, rich gold of the decorative arts. And like spring in the Garden, the museum is ablaze with color. In each gallery, we can experience this variety in landscape, texture, and color on a purely aesthetic level—truly one of life’s great pleasures.  read more »

Booked Up: A Conversation About a New Guide to an Overlooked Group of Organisms

Posted in Books: Past and Present on June 10th, 2015 by Lansing Moore – Be the first to comment

Stevenson Swanson is the Garden’s Science Media Manager.

In this video, two lichenologists sit down to talk about—what else?—lichens. Or rather, a new book about lichens from the NYBG Press, Common Lichens of Northeastern North America.

This field guide “was written for the average person to learn about lichens,” co-author Troy McMullin, Ph.D., tells James Lendemer, Ph.D., Assistant Curator in the Institute of Systematic Botany at The New York Botanical Garden. “It was written in non-technical language,” he adds, noting that the book is richly illustrated with photos of all the lichen species covered in the text.

Lichens, composite organisms made up of a fungus and an alga or other photosynthesizing partner, play important roles in ecosystems and are sensitive indicators of environmental quality. And they can be quite beautiful. They have not gotten the respect or attention they deserve, according to Dr. McMullin, and one sign of that neglect is the fact that Common Lichens is the first book of its kind for lichens.

“There hasn’t been a field guide like this,” Dr. McMullin says. “If you wanted a field guide to the birds, you go to a bookstore and there’s all kinds of them, and there’s ones for mushrooms, for trees and insects, but you never see any for lichens.”

Until now. To order Common Lichens of Northeastern North America, ($39, spiral-bound hardcover), go to the NYBG Press or order from Shop in the Garden.

Lights! Camera! Algae!

Posted in Cool Scientist Tech on June 2nd, 2015 by Dario Cavaliere – Be the first to comment

Dario J. Cavaliere is a graduate student in the Commodore Mathew Perry Graduate Studies Program and a part-time research technician for the Cullman Program in Molecular Systematics at The New York Botanical Garden.

Nitella hyalina, freshwater algae

Meet Nitella hyalina, a freshwater alga with an especially unusual appearance. Elaborate whorls of branchlets and other three-dimensional structures make microscopic imaging of this species quite a challenge.

With advances in imaging software, N. hyalina has met its match. This software includes a stacking feature that allowed me to photograph the whole three-dimensional structure.

Check out those spiky bits! Those orange blobs are the plant’s reproductive structures, which are notoriously difficult to image. But now N. hyalina is ready for its close-up.

Honoring a Musical Legend of the Southern Appalachians

Posted in New Plant Discoveries on May 27th, 2015 by Science Talk – Be the first to comment

Jessica L. Allen is a graduate student in the Commodore Mathew 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 are their primary research interest.

Japewiella dollypartoniana lichen Dolly Parton

Japewiella dollypartoniana

Atop Hangover Mountain in the Unicoi Mountains along the North Carolina-Tennessee border, we recently discovered a population of lichens that were in fruit and were excited to realize that they were a new species. Another native gem had been added to the flora of North America.

But what to name the new species?  As we contemplated that question, we sat down to eat our lunch and take in the sweeping views of the nearby Smokies.

When most people think of native plants and animals, images of familiar flowers and songbirds probably come to mind. But largely overlooked are the thousands of lichen species that make their homes in our own backyards. Lichens are fungi that have evolved unique relationships with algae for the purpose of obtaining nutrition.

Indeed fungi that have adopted this lifestyle play crucial roles in keeping our natural landscapes healthy. They also form spectacular growths on trees, rocks and soil from the highest mountains to the lowest and harshest deserts. Scientists at The New York Botanical Garden have discovered new species of lichens throughout eastern North America steadily over the last 50 years, with no end in sight.

read more »