Plants and People 

Plants are essential to human existence, providing food, clothing, shelter, medicine, and the raw materials to meet many other needs. Research and conservation at the Botanical Garden includes a focus on useful plants, both those that are global resources with great economic impact as well as species used regionally by indigenous peoples and local communities.

The diversity of useful plants on Earth is inherently linked to cultural diversity. Garden scientists study biodiversity-based traditional knowledge systems around the world and the often complex relationships that exist between plants, people, and culture. In the 21st century, this understanding of plants and people at local, regional, and global levels is critical to finding solutions for conserving and sustainably managing the plant resources on which the well-being of humankind depends.

Rattan is the flexible stem (cane) of the climbing palm genus Calamus and several related genera. Native to tropical regions of Africa, Asia, and Australasia, commercial rattan is a $2.5 billion global industry.
Wikimedia Commons. United States Public Domain.
Limonia acidissima from Southeast Asia. In Myanmar, this plant is intimately linked to local life. Using a stone, the bark is ground into a thick white paste that is applied to the face for ceremonial purposes and skin protection.
Wikimedia Commons. GNU Free Documentation License.
 

 

Plant Diversity and Human Health

For millennia, plants and the chemical compounds and extracts derived from them have been used as medicines. Garden scientists focus their research and conservation efforts on discovering and understanding the diversity of plants used in all three of the plant-based systems for maintaining human health: traditional, herbal, and pharmaceutical. Though erosion of traditional cultures is leading to an impoverishment of local medicine, traditional, largely plant-based medical systems continue to provide a portion of the primary healthcare needs of more than 80% of the world’s population. Commercialized herbal medicine, known as botanical supplements in contrast to traditional medicine, is plant medicine that is processed, marketed, and consumed outside the culture and geographic regions from which the plants and their use originated. Modern pharmaceutical medicine, with both local and global application, remains heavily dependent on structurally diverse compounds originally (or still) derived from plants.

Selected Projects
Dr. Michael Balick and Palauan researcher Van Ray Tadao interviewing and collecting plants under the guidance of Ucheldikes Ellabed Rebluud in village of Ngirokel, Palau.

Biodiversity and Human Health in the Republic of Palau, Micronesia. Led by Garden scientists Drs. Michael Balick and Wayne Law, in collaboration with a local team from The Belau National Museum and other international researchers, the project is documenting the plants of Palau and their traditional uses. Project data is being used to identify key habitats for conservation and to produce a checklist of Palauan vascular plants, an ethnobotanical manual of Palauan plants, and a primary healthcare manual based on traditional Palauan plant medicines.

 
Map of the Yela Forest Protected Area site on Kosrae, designated to protect the last intact stand of Terminalia carolinensis.

Biodiversity and Human Health in Kosrae, Federated States of Micronesia. The largely unspoiled island of Kosrae is home to steep mountains and the only intact Terminalia carolinensis forest in the world. Led by Garden scientists Drs. Wayne Law and Michael Balick, the project is exploring the island’s biodiversity and culture. Data from the project will be used to identify key habitats on Kosrae as part of the Micronesia Challenge, a region-wide conservation program. It will also be used to produce a checklist of the vascular plants of Kosrae, along with an ethnobotanical manual of Kosraean plants.

 
DNA barcodes are unique identifiers for species, analogous to the ubiquitous barcodes used to identify products
(top right) Black cohosh (Actaea racemosa) is one of the best-selling herbs of commerce. The rhizomes, rather than the inflorescences of white flowers, are typically used.
Image courtesy of www.plantsystematics.org

DNA Barcoding of Herbal Dietary Supplements. Led by Garden scientists Drs. Damon Little and Dennis Stevenson, in collaboration with David Baker, M.D., from Stony Brook University Medical Center, the project is using DNA barcoding and newly developed scientific protocols to test and validate whether selected herbal dietary supplements contain the exact plant species indicated on the supplement label. Herbal supplements chosen for testing and validation will be among those listed as legal to sell by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and reported as bestselling herbs of commerce by the American Botanical Council. Funding provided by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

Find out more information

See the PBS Newshour Report

 
The Madagascar Periwinkle (Catharanthus roseus) contains many alkaloids of medicinal value, including vincristine used in the treatment of leukemia in children.
Image courtesy of www.systematics.org
Willow bark (Salix spp.), noted as a pain reliever for centuries, is the original source of aspirin.
Image by Kevin C. Nixon. Retrieved from www.plantsystematics.org

Natural Products Research. Plants, and the chemicals they contain, are an important source of raw materials for medicines, foods, and cosmetics and to meet other human and veterinary needs. From its earliest days, the Garden has served as a center for the study of plants to identify biologically active compounds—lending its expertise to natural products research in collaboration with academic laboratories, government agencies such as The U.S. National Institutes of Health/National Cancer Institute, and various pharmaceutical companies.

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Plant Diversity and Food Security

Food security—the availability of and access to foods—is a complex topic involving many disciplines. A combination of several factors over the last century has resulted in a loss of plant diversity in food sources and an accompanying genetic erosion. At the Botanical Garden, scientists are working to understand the biological, social, and political processes that affect the maintenance, conservation, and continued evolution of major crop plants such as rice and lesser-known food species. They are also searching for the wild ancestors of edible plants, many of which have the potential to confer disease resistance and vigor to current crops. And Garden scientists are working to characterize genetic pathways that control desirable food traits among different varieties of edible plants such as eggplant.

Selected Projects
 
Rice terraces in Indonesia

Agrodiversity for In Situ Conservation of Rice Germplasm In and Near Its Center of Diversity. Rice is the world’s most important food crop, and maintenance of genetic diversity in rice is crucial to global food security. Led by Garden scientist Dr. Christine Padoch in collaboration with Southeast Asian scientists, this long-term project has worked to understand the processes that create, maintain, and destroy diversity in rice. A book based on the results of this project will be used to promote the practices and policies that enhance both food security and diversity.

 

Search for the Wild Ancestors of Edible Squashes. Unraveling the wild ancestry of modern food plants has historical significance, biological significance, and potential for developing disease resistance, vigor, hardiness, and culinary properties in the foods humans eat. Led by Garden scientist Dr. Michael Nee, the project is searching for the wild ancestors of edible squashes in Andes Mountain Range, using evidence from extensive prior field exploration, herbarium studies, and corroborating anthropological evidence.

Cucurbita sororia from the Gulf of Mexico coast. This is a bitter wild ancestor of an important modern edible Mexican squash.
From the ruins at Tilcara, Argentina, looking out across the landscape where Incas cultivated local squashes. Wild ancestors of these cultivated Incan squashes, as yet undiscovered, may still exist here.”
 

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Plant Diversity and Other Uses

Food and medicine are just two of the many uses of plants as natural resources. Botanical Garden scientists are working with local colleagues and other international researchers to document the full range of plants used as resources in specific places or by specific indigenous peoples or local communities. In addition to expanding our knowledge base about the value of Earth’s plant diversity, this work helps to increase awareness and support for local traditions involving plants and helps to develop informed plans about sustaining useful plant diversity itself.

Participants in a bush medicine camp held at Ix Chel Farm Belize, learning about the importance of preserving native species.

Selected Projects
Ethnobotany and Floristics of Belize. Subtropical Belize has a wealth of forest lands, a system of protected forest reserve, and nine distinct cultural and ethnic groups. This long-term project led by Garden scientist Dr. Michael Balick and local collaborator Dr. Rosita Arvigo has inventoried the plants of Belize and documented their traditional and contemporary uses by the variety of ethnic and cultural groups. Drs. Balick and Arvigo are currently writing a guide to the useful plants of Belize (expected publication date 2012). Find out more information

Michael Balick talks about NYBG Green Currency Exhibition with The Scientist

Interview with Michael Balick

Project publications available from Shop in the Garden:

  1. Plants, People, and Culture
  2. Checklist of the Vascular Plants of Belize with Common Names and Uses
  3. Rainforest Remedies: 100 Healing Herbs of Belize

 

 


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Conserving and Managing Plant Diversity: Traditional Knowledge Systems

Traditional knowledge systems refer to the specific set of knowledge resulting from intellectual activity by indigenous peoples and local communities in a traditional context. These knowledge systems have significance and relevance not only to their holders but also to the rest of humankind, for example in conserving and managing plant diversity. Botanical Garden scientists are working with indigenous peoples and local communities to record information on economic plant diversity, traditional uses, and traditional resource management—and partnering with local conservation agencies to use this knowledge to identify and protect key habitats. Garden scientists are also working with local communities to promote the sustainable management of wild populations of economically important plants.

Map showing location of 960 rattan inventory transects in the Central Truong Son Mountains of Vietnam.

Selected Projects
Discovering, Conserving, and Managing Rattan in Vietnam. Commercial rattan is the flexible stem (cane) of the climbing palm genus Calamus and several related genera, and much of it comes from Vietnam. Led by Garden scientists Drs. Andrew Henderson and Charles Peters and Vietnamese colleagues, the project is documenting the little-known species diversity of rattans throughout Vietnam and preparing an illustrated field guide to their identification. Several studies, including a major one in protected areas in the Central Truong Son Mountains, are collecting data on local rattan species diversity and abundance to develop management plans for their conservation and sustainable use.

 
Forest and brush fires have become an increasing problem in the rapidly urbanizing areas of Western Amazonia.

Fires in Western Amazonia: Understanding and Modeling the Role of Climatic, Social, Demographic, and Land Use Change. Large fires escaped from burning fields and pastures have become common dry-season events ravaging forests, farms, and settlements in much of Amazonia. In collaboration with researchers from Columbia University, Garden scientist Dr. Christine Padoch is investigating processes of change in land use, migration, urbanization, and climate and their links to the probability of changes in the incidence, size, and severity of escaped fires. Project results will aid understanding of how biological, social, and atmospheric processes are coupled to change the danger of fire damage in complex and rapidly evolving tropical landscapes.

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SEE ALSO: CONSERVATION




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Plant Diversity and Human Health - More Projects

Pseudovanilla ponapensis, a rare endemic orchid of Pohnpei collected by Dr. Wayne Law.

Biodiversity and Human Health in Pohnpei, Federated States of Micronesia. As part of the Micronesia Challenge, this project led by Garden scientists Drs. Wayne Law and Michael Balick, is helping to identify highly diverse habitats containing rare and endangered plants that should be protected. As a foundation for this conservation work, the project has produced a checklist of the vascular plants of Pohnpei documenting the endemic, indigenous, introduced, and invasive species on the island. It has also produced a primary healthcare manual based on traditional Pohnpeian plant medicines and a book on the ethnobotany of Pohnpei.

 
Rue (Ruta spp.) has a ritual use by Latino immigrants in NYC to bring good luck and cure shingles.

Cultural Competency Training for Healthcare Professionals in Dominican and other Latino Ethnomedical Systems in New York City. Culturally effective healthcare involves communication and care-giving based on awareness of and respect for health-related knowledge, beliefs, and practices of a patient’s cultural group. Led by Garden scientist Dr. Ina Vandebroek in collaboration with New York-based medical schools and community clinics, curricular materials are being developed and training provided in the use of herbal remedies by Dominican immigrants and the cultural beliefs about folk illnesses of three important Latino communities in New York City (Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, and Dominicans).

See In the Caribbean Garden with Ethnobotanist Ina Vandebroek

See Ina in the NOVA ScienceNOW series The Secret Life of Scientists

 
Bolivian physicians specialized in Tropical Medicine, medical students and traditional healers from Yurakaré and Trinitario indigenous communities assisted in the workshops.

Strengthening Traditional Knowledge to Improve Community Healthcare in the Tropics of Cochabama, Bolivia. In the sparsely populated lowland tropics of Bolivia, the project is strengthening traditional knowledge to improve community healthcare. Led by Garden scientist Dr. Ina Vandebroek, project workshops are bringing together Bolivian biomedical healthcare providers, medical students, and traditional healers from Yurakare and Trinitario indigenous communities in the Indigenous Territory and National Park Isiboro-Sécure (TIPNIS). Frequently occurring community health problems are discussed in open dialog, leading to consensus among those present about the best practices for traditional healers to use when community health problems arise and biomedical care is not readily available.

Anthopterus wardii (Ericaceae), a tropical relative of blueberries.

Natural Products Research on Tropical Relatives of Blueberries. Garden scientist Dr. Paola Pedraza-Peñalosa is collaborating with Dr. Edward J. Kennelly from Hebert H. Lehman College, CUNY on natural products research on the tropical relatives of blueberries. The team, led by Kennelly, is exploring for the first time the antioxidant content of several tropical blueberry relatives and the therapeutic potential of their polyphenolic constituents in the treatment of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

CBS News Healthwatch

Press Release

Blueberries and Relatives (Ericaceae) from the New World Tropics

 

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Plant Diversity and Food Security - More Projects

Four Southeast Asian heirloom varieties of eggplant.

Characterization of Genetic Pathways That Control the Tastes and Medicinal Properties of Different Landraces of Eggplant. Written records of eggplant's (Solanum melongena) uses as food and medicine in India and Southeast Asia date back approximately 2000 years. A large number of heirloom varieties of eggplant are still in use in these regions. Using over 100 Southeast Asian heirloom varieties and wild related species, Garden scientist Dr. Amy Litt and Ph.D. candidate Rachel Meyer are combining techniques from genetics, plant chemistry, and ethnobotany to discover and understand the genes associated with medicinal and desirable food traits in eggplant.

 

Population Structure and Species Diversity of a Pathogenic Fungus on Cranberries. Colletotrichum gloeosporioides is a widespread fungal pathogen of the American cranberry (Vaccinium macrocarpon). Led by Garden scientist Dr. Amy Litt and Ph.D. candidate Vinson Doyle, the project is using genetic data to determine the number and diversity of species within the C. gloeosporioides complex found on cranberry. In addition, nuclear DNA markers are helping to understand the reproductive biology and dispersal patterns of this destructive pathogen. Project data will allow cranberry farmers to formulate effective disease management strategies and inform scientists working with disease management in other crop systems.”

Nuclear DNA markers showing variability among individuals of a fungus responsible for significant economic losses to cranberry farmers in North America. (click to enlarge)



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Conserving and Managing Plant Diversity: Traditional Knowledge Systems — More Projects

Video. One of many Mayan pyramids
still hidden in the Selva Maya

Building Bridges for Sustainable Forestry in the Selva Maya, Mexico: Phase II. The existence of the Selva Maya—the most extensive tract of tropical moist forest in Central America—can be largely credited to members of the local communities who have been managing and conserving the forests of the region for millennia. Led by Garden scientist Dr. Charles Peters, the project is providing technical assistance to local communities (ejidos) so that they can continue to manage their forests and qualify for certification by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). A primary focus is the collection of quantitative growth data for over 20 commercial timber species.

Selva Maya seen from the Mayan ruins of Becan in Campeche.
Load of certified mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla) logs in Quintana Roo, Mexico, an area of the Selva Maya.
 
Abandonment of agricultural lands often leads to frequent fires and continuing degradation.

Abandoned Lands, Resource Degradation, and the Future of Peruvian Amazonia. The abandonment and subsequent degradation of lands in western Amazonia is leading to a host of environmental, social, and economic problems, including recurrent fires, social conflict, increased crimes against property and persons, and loss of livelihoods. Led by Garden scientist Dr. Christine Padoch, this comprehensive program of multi-disciplinary research on the drivers, processes, and effects of land abandonment and degradation in the Peruvian Amazon is informing broad, science-based policy for diversified and sustainable land use and tenure in Amazonia.

 
Kachin crews working in the 100 hectare Village Management Area located north of Shinlonga in Myanmar.
Typical Kachin house located along the Ledo Road in the village of Shinlonga, Myanmar.

Community-Based Natural Resource Management in the Hukaung Valley Wildlife Sanctuary, Myanmar. Led by Garden scientist Dr. Charles Peters, in collaboration with the Wildlife Conservation Society and the Myanmar Forestry Department, the project is documenting the supply and demand for forest resources—timber, thatch, rattan, medicinal plants, and others—among Kachin communities living along the Ledo Road in the Hukaung Valley Wildlife Sanctuary. Project data has led to the establishment of an intensive management area outside the village of Shinlonga, to provide a reliable flow of these resources and train villagers in the mechanics of sustainable forestry.

[Video] Hukaung Valley Rattan Survey

Villagers from Acateyahualco, Guerrero conducting an agave (Agave cupreata) inventory. Large agave plant shown to the right.

Community Management of Wild Maguey (Agave spp.) in Mexico: Phase II. The cultural and economic importance of wild maguey (genus Agave) for making mescal is a strong motivation for conserving tropical dry forests in Mexico. Local communities have developed very sophisticated systems for ensuring that the maguey resource is not over-exploited. Led by Garden scientist Dr. Charles Peters, the project is documenting local management techniques and providing technical assistance and training materials necessary to extend the tradition of community mescal production and promote the conservation and sustainable use of tropical dry forests.

 
Garden scientist Dr. Douglas Daly discussing plant identification methods with “super-mateiros,” who are helping to develop a course for local woodsmen.

School for Woodsmen in the State of Acre, Brazil. A collaborative effort by Garden scientist Dr. Douglas Daly, the University of Acre, and the Acre State agency Fundação Dom Moacyr is developing a training program for woodsmen (mateiros), foresters, and community members in the techniques of plant species identification and botanical inventory—joining the woodsmen’s traditional methods with modern tools and techniques. This combined expertise is reducing the disastrously high rate of identification error in both commercial and community forest management operations that makes the current practices inherently unsustainable.

 
Harvested Piper methysticum. Significant demand for the roots to produce the ritual beverage sakau has led to the cultivation and destruction of upland forest on Pohnpei. The local conservation community has responded with a “Grow Low” campaign to return sakau cultivation to traditional lowland agricultural areas.

Understanding the Impact of Anthropogenic Disturbance on Plant, Fungal, and Stream Biodiversity on the Pacific Islands of Pohnpei and Kosrae. The cultivation of sakau (Piper methysticum) for a traditional drink is a particular threat on Pohnpei. Farmers continually cut away large canopies in the forested upland interior, seeking out the extremely fertile soil needed for new sakau cultivation. Kosrae’s cultivation of sakau is smaller scale and grown in low elevation areas. This multi-institutional project, led by Garden scientists Drs. Michael Balick and Wayne Law, is documenting Pohnpei and Kosrae’s plants, fungi, and freshwater species and population densities, and studying the impact of sakau farming on this diversity and on water quality.

 

Click on the links below to view short videos about Sakau, Piper methysticum, and how its use as a ritual beverage impacts the people and culture of Pohnpei—as well as other parts of the world, where it is known as Kava.

Videos:

  1. Pohnpei: Island of the Sacred Root – 1 Piper methysticum
  2. Pohnpei: Island of the Sacred Root – 2 Preparing Sakau
  3. Pohnpei: Island of the Sacred Root – 3 Iso Salvador Iriarte Nahnken (High Chief) of the Kingdom of Nett
  4. Pohnpei: Island of the Sacred Root – 4 Syncretism
  5. Pohnpei: Island of the Sacred Root – 5 Rhythm
  6. Pohnpei: Island of the Sacred Root – 6 Kava (Sakau) in Western Health Care




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