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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 »

Botanists Boosted: NYBG’s Successful Wikipedia Edit-A-Thon

Posted in Nuggets from the Archives on August 12th, 2016 by Science Talk – Be the first to comment

Samantha D’Acunto is the Reference Librarian at The New York Botanical Garden‘s LuEsther T. Mertz Library, where she regularly assists researchers on projects ranging from the history of science to botany, art, and landscape history. Esther Jackson is the Public Services Librarian at the Mertz Library, where she manages Reference and Circulation services and oversees the Plant Information Office.


LuEsther T. Mertz Library

The LuEsther T. Mertz Library of The New York Botanical Garden welcomed Wikipedia editors from the New York City area recently for a five-hour session of research, writing, and editing dedicated to creating and enhancing articles about botanists who have made significant collections of plant specimens in New York State.

For several years, Mertz Library staff members have discussed the idea of creating Wikipedia pages for botanists as a way of making use of the rich information contained in one of the library’s unique special collections known as the Vertical File. Among other things, the Vertical File holds especially interesting biographical materials such as photographs, newspaper articles, magazine clippings, brochures, and other ephemera about botanists, horticulturists, and agriculturalists. Many of the individuals represented in the Vertical File were at one time affiliated with the Botanical Garden or were professionally active in the state of New York. Therefore, hosting an edit-a-thon focused on creating Wikipedia articles for botanists who have made significant collections in the state of New York seemed like a logical choice.
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A Surprising Find in Central Park

Posted in New Plant Discoveries on August 5th, 2016 by Daniel Atha – Be the first to comment

Daniel Atha is the Conservation Program Manager at The New York Botanical Garden. He leads the Botanical Garden’s collaboration with the Central Park Conservancy on the Central Park Flora project.


Pumpkin ash tree recently discovered in Central Park

Pumpkin ash tree recently discovered in Central Park (Photos: Ken Chaya)

In the middle of Central Park, in the heart of North America’s largest metropolis, one of the rarest trees in New York has begun to set fruit, making it possible to determine its true identity. Working with arborists from the Central Park Conservancy, botanists from The New York Botanical Garden recently confirmed the occurrence of two pumpkin ash trees (Fraxinus profunda), a species that is endangered in New Jersey and Pennsylvania and was only recently added to the New York flora.

As part of the Central Park Flora project—a three-year endeavor to document the wild flora of Central Park—the team has discovered white ash (Fraxinus americana), European ash (Fraxinus excelsior), two varieties of green ash (Fraxinus pennsylvanica var. pennsylvanica and Fraxinus pennsylvanica var. subintegerrima) and now pumpkin ash growing wild in Central Park.
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The Science of Stink

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on July 29th, 2016 by Stevenson Swanson – Be the first to comment

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


Corpse FlowerAh, New York in the summer. So many fetid fragrances fill the air. The garbage on the sidewalk, the hot blast of exhaust from a passing bus, the dank odor of the subway—these and even less savory sources best left to the imagination all add their odors to the city’s atmosphere on a hot, humid day.

That makes it all the more remarkable that thousands of New Yorkers have flocked to The New York Botanical Garden to see the corpse flower that is now blooming in the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory. Apart from its size and striking appearance, the plant is notable for its stench, often compared to the smell of rotting flesh, which is the clever ploy it has evolved to attract pollinators.

Perhaps the fact that the plant blooms so infrequently and unpredictably draws most people, but many seem fascinated by the phenomenon that something in nature would smell this bad on purpose.
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NYBG Offers Opportunities to Master’s Students

Posted in NYBG Grad Students on July 15th, 2016 by Lawrence Kelly – Be the first to comment

Lawrence M. Kelly, Ph.D., is Director of Graduate Studies at The New York Botanical Garden.


Lehman College Master’s degree graduate Dario Cavaliere studying anatomy of the sesame family in NYBG’s Plant Research Laboratory.

Lehman College Master’s degree graduate Dario Cavaliere studying anatomy of the sesame family in NYBG’s Plant Research Laboratory.

Like other scientific research and educational institutions across the country, The New York Botanical Garden has seen increased enrollment in its Master’s programs in recent years as more graduate students pursue non-Ph.D. advanced degrees in the sciences. While many Ph.D. students seek careers in research and academia, Master’s students are more often looking for training opportunities to prepare them for careers in business, industry, nonprofit organizations, and government agencies.

To ensure that we continue to offer a broad range of opportunities to graduate students in the plant sciences, we have responded to this demand by providing Master’s thesis opportunities to students through our affiliated universities. Yale University’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies offers four Master’s degrees, as does New York University, including one focused on bioinformatics and systems biology, which is very relevant for students who want to gain expertise in biodiversity-related data management. Lehman College and City College of New York—both part of the City University of New York system—offer Master’s programs in biology. Columbia University confers a Master’s in conservation biology, while Fordham University has a Master’s in ecology.
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In Search of Fumewort at Garth Woods, We Found Something Better

Posted in From the Field on July 7th, 2016 by Science Talk – Be the first to comment

Laura Booth and Zihao Wang are Forest Interns at The New York Botanical Garden.


Abundant and diverse herbaceous layer in Garth Woods

Abundant and diverse herbaceous layer in Garth Woods

On a steamy day in late May, a crew of invasive species scouts assembled in the parking lot of the Garth Woods Apartments in Scarsdale, Westchester County. Our mission? To survey Garth Woods, a sliver of intact riparian forest, for Corydalis incisa, also called incised fumewort or purple keman. Much to our excitement, this case of sleuthing had a happy ending: for now, Garth Woods shows no sign of C. incisa, and full to the brim with uncommon native herbs that were a joy to see.

C. incisa, which is native to Asia, is an emerging invasive along the Bronx River; it was first recorded in the New York metropolitan region during the Bronx Park BioBlitz in 2005, and has subsequently been observed along the riverbanks of the Bronx River in The New York Botanical Garden and in several sites in Westchester County.
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Collected on the Fourth of July

Posted in Past and Present on July 1st, 2016 by Stevenson Swanson – Be the first to comment

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


Dichanthelium latifolium

Dichanthelium latifolium

Watching some fireworks, going to the local parade, grilling burgers and hot dogs, maybe even finding time for a nap. Sounds like a classic Fourth of July. Collecting plant specimens is notably missing from this list. And yet, for botanists, our nation’s birthday is not necessarily a day off.

A search of the C. V. Starr Virtual Herbarium, where The New York Botanical Garden’s digitized herbarium specimens are made available online to researchers and the public, reveals that it includes no fewer than 6,808 specimens that were collected on a Fourth of July. They come from around the world, but more than 1,000 were snipped or dug up in the United States on Independence Day. They eventually found their way to the Botanical Garden’s William and Lynda Steere Herbarium, where they are now part of the 7.8 million specimens that are preserved there and are now being digitized for the Starr Virtual Herbarium.
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