Plant Talk | Science Talk

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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NYBG Facts: Cinchona

Posted in Videos and Lectures on January 6th, 2017 by Matt Newman – Be the first to comment

Deep in the Haupt Conservatory‘s upland rain forest house stands an unassuming tree with a rich history—one that involves one of the most significant medical discoveries of the last century. From the forests of South America to the ships of the British Navy, and even your favorite cocktail, the cinchona’s been making waves for decades.

Find out more about this eminently useful tree in our latest series, NYBG Facts!

Wikipedia Edit-A-Thon 2017

Posted in Events on December 28th, 2016 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.


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On Wednesday, January 25, 2017, from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m., the LuEsther T. Mertz Library will host a Wikipedia Edit-A-Thon focused on creating and enhancing articles for Women in Science.  Specifically, we will be highlighting female scientists.

This NYBG Edit-A-Thon is a part of a week of Wikipedia editing events hosted by the Council on Botanical and Horticultural Libraries (CBHL).  Other participating institutions include Mt. Cuba Center and the University of New Mexico.  The theme for this series of Edit-A-Thons is “Plants and People.”  At NYBG, library staff has elected to focus on creating biographical Wikipedia articles for women who work within several areas of botany—ethnobotany, taxonomy, and plant collecting.

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Top 10: The Best Popular-Science Books of 2016

Posted in Books: Past and Present on December 22nd, 2016 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.


Many exciting science books were published in 2016, including an enormous number of more specialized botanical texts. But of all the excellent titles intended for a general audience, a few stood out in particular for me. Here are my favorite popular-science books of the year.

Botanicum (Welcome to the Museum)Art & Art History

Botanicum (Welcome to the Museum) catches the eye immediately, its cover adorned with botanical illustrations.  Illustrator Katie Scott has breathed contemporary life into her botanical illustrations with an art nouveau-like aesthetic that manages to recall historic botanical illustration styles. Author Kathy Willis has divided the text into “galleries,” titled The first plants; Trees; Palms and cycads; Herbaceous plants; Grasses, cattails, sedges, and rushes; Orchids and bromeliads; and Adapting to environments. This is a beautiful book for casual plant lovers as well as those who are already passionate about botany and botanical art.

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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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The Pumpkin Ash: An Update on a Rare New York Tree

Posted in New Plant Discoveries on November 21st, 2016 by Daniel Atha – Be the first to comment

Daniel Atha is Director of Conservation Outreach for the Center for Conservation Strategy at The New York Botanical Garden.


Jim Coelho with pumpkin ash near the Bronx Zoo’s Reptile House. (Photos by Daniel Atha)

Jim Coelho with pumpkin ash near the Bronx Zoo’s Reptile House. (Photos by Daniel Atha)

I previously reported on the discovery of pumpkin ash trees in Central Park, expanding the known range of the species into Manhattan. Now, recent discoveries have expanded the range of the species in the Bronx as well, bringing the number of known populations of this rare tree in New York to five (four in the Bronx and one in Manhattan).

In 1903, Nathaniel Britton, co-founder of The New York Botanical Garden and one of the most influential botanists of the 20th Century, collected a specimen of a “wild” ash tree in what was then the Botanical Garden’s “North Meadow” (the site is now in the Bronx River Forest section of Bronx Park). Britton named the tree Fraxinus michauxii for André and François Michaux, a father-and-son team of 19th-century French botanists sent to catalog the arboreal treasures of North America. Taxonomists now consider Britton’s tree only a minor variant of Fraxinus profunda (the pumpkin ash) and not worthy of species distinction. The tree from which he collected the specimen is now gone, but its descendants are alive and well in the region, as we are discovering.
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Wanted: American Eel

Posted in Learning Experiences on November 2nd, 2016 by Laura Booth – Be the first to comment

Laura Booth is a Forest intern with The New York Botanical Garden.


American eel (Anguilla rostrata)

American eel (Anguilla rostrata)

A quicksilver flash diverts your eye from the Bronx River’s frothy flow over the 182nd St. dam at River Park. Was it just the remnants of a potato chip bag slithering downstream?

Look again, and quick! If you’re lucky, you could glimpse an American eel, Anguilla rostrata.

Against unfavorable odds, the American eel has persisted in the urban waterways of New York since the city’s inception—surviving years of industrial pollution, raw sewage dumping, and runoff. In recent years, their populations have entered a precipitous decline, driven in part by long-term effects of the damming of freshwater rivers and streams, which they require as habitat.

What makes this strange and wonderful species—its finely-scaled body coated in a mucous layer that is truly “slippery as an eel”—important?
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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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