Interesting Plant Stories

A Catchy Phrase, But is It True?

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on February 10th, 2017 by Esther Jackson – Be the first to comment

Esther Jackson is the Public Services Librarian at The New York Botanical Garden’s LuEsther T. Mertz Library, where she manages Reference and Circulation services and oversees the Plant Information Office. 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.


Acer pseudoplatanus Frank Vincentz

Acer pseudoplatanus by Frank Vincentz

Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny doesn’t exactly flow off the tongue unless you are familiar with scientific terminology. However, what appears to be a somewhat intimidating phrase is actually marvelously succinct and elegant.

Ontogeny is “the development or course of development, especially of an individual organism.” This could refer to the development of a plant from embryo to seed to seedling to mature, reproductive plant. Or it could refer to an animal growing from an embryo into an infant and then into an adult. 

Phylogeny is “the evolutionary history of a genetically related group of organisms, as distinguished from the development of the individual organism.” Sometimes these relationships are illustrated as trees of information, with groups of closely related organisms called clades. Studying and depicting shared evolutionary history is known as cladistics. Have you seen Darwin’s tree of life

If so, then you understand the basic idea of phylogeny. It’s all about the study of relationships.

Recapitulate means “to repeat the principal stages or phases.” For most, this is perhaps the most recognizable word of the trio. Actually, it is the namesake of recapitulation theory.

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After 248 Years, Still Fresh as a Daisy

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on February 3rd, 2017 by Stevenson Swanson – Be the first to comment

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


Capt Cook SpecimenPress. Dry. Mount.

That’s the basic process for turning a plant into a research specimen that will last indefinitely, and it’s stayed the same for hundreds of years for a good reason: It works.

As proof, here’s a member of the daisy family that botanists Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander clipped in January 1769 in Tierra del Fuego, at the southern tip of South America. They were part of the scientific team aboard the HMS Endeavour on Captain James Cook’s first voyage around the world. This 248-year-old specimen, still holding onto its leaves and retaining most of its color, is now part of the collection of 7.8 million preserved plants in NYBG’s William and Lynda Steere Herbarium, the second largest in the world.
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A Conversation about Plant Conservation in the Modern Era

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on December 9th, 2016 by Stevenson Swanson – Be the first to comment

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


In Defense of PlantsIn the effort to conserve the planet’s biodiversity, plants tend to be overlooked. People spend much more time and money on “charismatic” species of animals. For instance, 100 percent of the world’s known threatened and endangered animals have been assessed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, the most important global institution when it comes to evaluating such threats. But only assessed about five percent of plants have been assessed.

It’s a scary state of affairs, especially considering that so-called biodiversity hotspots are defined by their vascular flora.

The New York Botanical Garden is working to improve awareness and understanding about the botanical world. That was one of the topics when Matt Candeias of the blog and podcast “In Defense of Plants” interviewed Dr. Brian Boom who, among his other responsibilities at the Botanical Garden, is the Garden’s Vice President for Conservation Strategy.

To listen to their discussion about Dr. Boom’s career and how he became so passionate about plant conservation in the modern world, click here

Stressed Out: How will Vietnam’s Unique Flat-Leaved Pine Respond to Climate Change?

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on December 2nd, 2016 by Stephanie Schmiege – Be the first to comment

Stephanie Schmiege, a Ph.D. candidate at the Commodore Matthew Perry Graduate Studies Program of The New York Botanical Garden and at the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Biology of Columbia University, is researching response of conifers to environmental stress under the direction of Drs. Dennis Stevenson and Kevin Griffin.


Looking out over Vietnam’s Central Highlands from the field station at Bidoup Nui Ba National Park

Looking out over Vietnam’s Central Highlands from the field station at Bidoup Nui Ba National Park

The unique flattened leaf morphology of Pinus krempfii.

The unique flattened leaf morphology of Pinus krempfii.

The Central Highlands of Vietnam are home to the world’s only known flat-leaved pine. Endemic to this area, Pinus krempfii was first discovered by French botanists, who were astounded by its unique leaves and even confused it with species from an entirely different family. Not only is it the only known pine with flat leaves, it is the only pine we know of that successfully survives in dense tropical forests. Scientists think that the flattened leaves may allow Pinus krempfii to absorb more light than most needle-leaved pines, which in turn facilitates its success in the tropics. However, flattened leaves require vulnerable tissues to transport water throughout the leaves. 

This trade-off may leave Pinus krempfii susceptible to changes in climate, particularly drought stress. Climate models for Southeast Asia forecast increasingly long dry periods. How will Pinus krempfii respond to increasing drought stress? Will the unique leaves that have assisted its survival in the tropics prove to be its undoing?

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Audubon’s Final Journey: Botanical Relics Uncovered at NYBG

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on October 31st, 2016 by Lisa Vargues – Be the first to comment

Lisa Vargues is a Curatorial Assistant at The New York Botanical Garden’s William and Lynda Steere Herbarium. Her work includes digitizing plant specimens, historical and new, from around the world for the C. V. Starr Virtual Herbarium.


From the 1833 portrait of John James Audubon by Henry Inman. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

From the 1833 portrait of John James Audubon by Henry Inman. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

As the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium continues to digitize its 7.8 million preserved plant specimens for online access, one of the exciting aspects of our work is the opportunity to uncover a wide variety of historical treasures. Four specimens in particular recently grabbed my attention. Based on the label data, these pressed plants, suddenly pulled from obscurity, were collected during John James Audubon’s Quadrupeds expedition.

Born in Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) in 1785, naturalist and painter Audubon moved to France during childhood and permanently to the United States as a young man. Audubon’s name has long been synonymous with beautiful and dramatic paintings of birds in their natural habitats. The 435 life-sized paintings in his published work The Birds of America (1827-38, Havell Edition) continue to be treasured for their iconic style—most notably in 2010, when a first edition of this collection sold at Sotheby’s in London for a record-breaking $11.5 million.
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WeDigBio 2016: Crowdsourcing for Conservation and Climate Change Research

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on October 20th, 2016 by Lansing Moore – Be the first to comment

Charles Zimmerman is Herbarium Collections and Outreach Administrator for the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium at The New York Botanical Garden.


WeDigBio 2016CALLING ALL ENVIRONMENTAL STEWARDS AND CITIZEN SCIENTISTS!

For centuries, biologists have explored and documented the natural world, collecting the billions of specimens now stored in museums, universities, and field stations worldwide. In the past few years, The New York Botanical Garden and other institutions across the globe have made tremendous strides toward unleashing the treasure trove of information stored in these collections for researchers and the general public.

Now, there is a way you can help!

On Saturday, October 22nd, from 10:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., The New York Botanical Garden’s William and Lynda Steere Herbarium will partner with Fordham University to host a community-based Natural History Collection Bioblitz as part of WeDigBio 2016, a global four-day volunteering event focused on mobilizing biodiversity data from preserved museum specimens to advance scientific research.

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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 »

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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