Archive for January, 2015

Four “Flavors” of New Plant Species, Part Two

Posted in New Plant Discoveries on January 30th, 2015 by Benjamin Torke – Be the first to comment

Benjamin M. Torke, Ph.D., is an Assistant Curator at the Garden’s Institute of Systematic Botany. His specialty is legumes, a large plant family that includes not only beans and peanuts but also hundreds of rain forest tree species.


As I noted last week, most new species display at least one of the four characteristics, or “flavors.” My research on the tropical tree genus Swartzia has provided examples of each. In addition to rare species—the subject of the first post in this series—some species are restricted.

One subgroup of Swartzia, section Acutifoliae, is very diverse in the Atlantic coastal area of Eastern Brazil. While visiting the herbarium of the National Botanical Garden of Rio de Janeiro in 2007, I happened upon a specimen of this group from an area of coastal sand dunes in the Brazilian state of Bahia. With its thick leaflets rolled under at the margins, silky sepals, and bushy growth form, the specimen was unlike any of the previously described species. In 2009, I located a similar specimen in the collection at the Conservatory and Botanical Garden in Geneva, Switzerland, that also came from the same area of sand dunes.

Swartzia arenophila. Photo: V. F. Mansano

Swartzia arenophila. Photo: V. F. Mansano

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Curare: From the Rain Forest to the Operating Room

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on January 29th, 2015 by Elizabeth Kiernan – 1 Comment

Elizabeth Kiernan is a project coordinator for the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium at The New York Botanical Garden. She is currently working on a program to document the biodiversity of the Amazonian region of South America.


A curare specimen originally collected by Richard C. Gill

A curare specimen originally collected by Richard C. Gill

With 7.4 million specimens, the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium of The New York Botanical Garden is a repository of thousands of scientifically significant, historic, or interesting plant specimens collected from around the world. Among these are specimens of the plants that are used to make curare, or blow-dart poison, which were collected during an intensive investigation of the poison for medicinal use in the late 1930s. That research was the start in the chain of events that revolutionized medical anesthesia.

Curare is extracted from a mixture of varying botanical sources, including species of the Menispermaceae and Loganiaceae families. Indigenous tribes of the Amazon region and elsewhere around the Neotropics have been credited with formulating curare, which induces muscular paralysis upon entering the bloodstream but is not toxic when ingested, making it ideal for hunting. Peter Martyr d’Anghiera, who chronicled Spain’s discoveries during the Age of Exploration, first described the poison in 1516. In 1595, Sir Walter Raleigh of England met the tribesmen of the Amazon region and returned with preparations of the poisonous herbs known by the natives as “ourari,” which later evolved into “curare.”
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Four “Flavors” of New Plant Species, Part One

Posted in New Plant Discoveries on January 23rd, 2015 by Benjamin Torke – Be the first to comment

Benjamin M. Torke, Ph.D., is an Assistant Curator at the Garden’s Institute of Systematic Botany. His specialty is legumes, a large plant family that includes not only beans and peanuts but also hundreds of rain forest tree species.


Every year, scientists in the Institute of Systematic Botany here at The New York Botanical Garden describe dozens of species of plants and fungi that are new to science. Recent examples come from Cuba, Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Brazil, Thailand, Vietnam, New Guinea, Australia, and the United States. These new species range from nearly microscopic lichens to huge forest canopy trees and were discovered in an equally broad range of habitats, ranging from rock outcrops in the Smoky Mountains to tropical rainforests in the Amazon Basin.

Despite the seeming randomness of discovery, most new species display at least one of four characteristics, or what might be called “flavors.” In my own research on the taxonomy of the tropical tree genus Swartzia, I have come across examples of each flavor. I’ll describe them in this series of posts, starting with new species that are rare.

In 2012, a Costa Rican colleague, Dr. Nelson Zamora, and I described a striking new species of Swartzia from the Pacific coast of Costa Rica. Several years before that, I had traveled to that small Central American country, partly to collect more specimens of this mysterious plant, which at the time was known from only a few fragmentary collections gathered primarily at two sites separated by about 100 miles. During the course of that trip, we discovered additional populations that bridged the geographical gap, and we concluded that the species ranges throughout the southern two-thirds of the Pacific lowlands of the country. It even occurs in popular tourist destinations such as La Cangreja and Corcovado National Parks. The fact that it had remained hidden for so long from botanists who have spent quite a lot of time in these areas is remarkable.
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Accidentally Archived

Posted in Nuggets from the Archives on January 22nd, 2015 by Juli Anna Janis – 1 Comment

Juli Anna Janis worked as an intern with Kenneth G. Karol, Ph.D., Assistant Curator in the Lewis B. and Dorothy Cullman Program for Molecular Systematics, whose specialty is algae.


There are certain things that one expects to see preserved in an herbarium, and these are primarily of a biological nature: plants, fungi, and algae.

Recently, though, while mounting algae that the University of California Berkeley had given to The New York Botanical Garden, I realized that the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium also collects materials that are accidentally archived. The algae specimens from Berkeley arrived still pressed between sheets of newspaper contemporaneous with the specimens.

I have seen algae pressed in envelopes, grocery lists, and ephemera of all sorts, but these newspapers have been the greatest treasure yet: around fifty pages ranging between 1895 and 1970, complete with illustrations, advertisements, and a few historic headlines. Here is a page from the fashion section of the San Francisco Examiner of 4 March 1928:

Vintage Newspaper San Francisco Examiner

In another context, these newspapers would have been the archival objects worth preserving–as valuable artifacts of human culture and history—but in an herbarium, they have survived as the storage medium for precious material of a different sort: Chara and Nitella algae specimens.

Working to Pull a Rare Cypress Back from the Brink of Extinction

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on January 16th, 2015 by Damon Little – Be the first to comment

Damon P. Little, Ph.D., is Assistant Curator of Bioinformatics in The Lewis B. and Dorothy Cullman Program for Molecular Systematics. In addition to his research projects involving large sets of plant DNA data, he studies the cypress family of conifers.


Thorne’s hairstreak (Mitoura thornei), an endangered butterfly, on the branch of a Forbes’ cypress.

Thorne’s hairstreak (Mitoura thornei), an endangered butterfly, on the branch of a Forbes’ cypress.

Last year, I was among a group of land managers and scientists that the Nature Conservancy brought to San Diego to plan for the future of a species that is on the brink of extinction.

Forbes’ cypress (Callitropsis forbesii) has never been particularly common as far as we know. Also known as Tecate cypress, this multi-trunked conifer was first brought to the attention of scientists when it was discovered by a University of California (Berkeley) undergraduate, C. N. Forbes, while hiking near San Diego during his winter break in 1907. Forbes found a single population with only a few scattered trees, but subsequent botanical exploration has turned up a few more populations in southern California and northern Baja California.

By far the largest and most impressive population of Forbes’ cypress covers the upper reaches of Otay Mountain, just east of San Diego and north of the U.S.–Mexico border. In their prime, vast numbers of Forbes’ cypress outcompeted almost all other trees on the mountain, creating a lush, closed canopy of dusky green. That canopy lowered the temperature and increased moisture levels on the forest floor, providing habitat for many other species of plants and animals. Most important, it provided food and shelter for Thorne’s hairstreak, an endangered butterfly that relies on Forbes’ cypress.
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No Neigh-Saying: Algae Can Be Art

Posted in Nuggets from the Archives on January 16th, 2015 by Juli Anna Janis – 1 Comment

Juli Anna Janis worked as an intern with Kenneth G. Karol, Ph.D., Assistant Curator in the Lewis B. and Dorothy Cullman Program for Molecular Systematics, whose specialty is algae.


In working with specimens of algae in the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium here at The New York Botanical Garden, I have found that every collector has a different set of priorities for preserving specimens.

Some record every minute detail of the collection on a preprinted label in neat penmanship, and some simply scribble “algae?” on a newspaper clipping. Some prize an aesthetic arrangement on a card engraved with scrolling, and some wad the plant up in an old grocery list.

And then there is Alice B. Lord, who, in 1925, arranged this specimen of Bangia fuscopurpurea to look like a horse.

Bangia fuscopurpurea Alice B Lord Herbarium

Her reason for this eccentric arrangement will perhaps always be unknowable, but its effect is certainly memorable.

That Glorious Forest: An Amazonian Explorer Returns to the Garden

Posted in Books: Past and Present on January 9th, 2015 by Stevenson Swanson – Be the first to comment

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


Sir Ghillean Prance with Victoria amazonica

Sir Ghillean Prance with Victoria amazonica

The New York Botanical Garden recently welcomed our distinguished former head of scientific research, Sir Ghillean Prance, one of the most important explorers of the Amazonian rain forest in modern times, who was back for an all-too-brief visit.

Sir Ghillean, who spent 25 years at the Botanical Garden before leaving in 1988 to become the Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, was here to celebrate the publication of his new book, That Glorious Forest: Exploring the Plants and Their Indigenous Uses in Amazonia, published by The New York Botanical Garden Press.

In a lifetime devoted to the study and conservation of tropical plants, Sir Ghillean has participated in 39 expeditions to the Amazon, beginning with a 1963 trip to Suriname as a young Garden researcher, which he describes in That Glorious Forest.
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Discovering the True Identity of Vietnam’s Hat Palm

Posted in New Plant Discoveries on January 9th, 2015 by Andrew Henderson – 1 Comment

Andrew Henderson, Ph.D., is the Abess Curator of Palms in the Institute of Systematic Botany at The New York Botanical Garden. He has conducted several research field trips to Vietnam and other Southeast Asian countries to document the palms of the region.


The market in Da Lat, Vietnam: the country’s distinctive conical hats are made from a palm that Vietnamese call la non.

The market in Da Lat, Vietnam: the country’s distinctive conical hats are made from a palm that Vietnamese call la non.

In central Vietnam, the woven hats that many villagers wear are made from a local palm that the Vietnamese call la non. For many years, la non was thought to be a species in the genus Licuala. In the treatment of the palms for the Flore Générale de l’Indo-Chine, for instance, it was referred to as Licuala spinosa.
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Ellen Hutchins: Ireland’s First Female Botanist

Posted in Nuggets from the Archives on January 2nd, 2015 by Sarah Dutton – 3 Comments

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.


Hutchins Specimen

I recently happened across the oldest specimen that I have ever seen in the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium. It was collected in August 1807 in Bantry Bay, Ireland, by a woman named “Miss Hutchins.” While digitizing lichen, bryophyte, and algal specimens over the last two years, I have become familiar with Miss Hutchins’ name. Her specimens appear to be some of the oldest in these collections, all dating from the very early 1800s. I finally decided to investigate: who was this Miss Hutchins?
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