Inside The New York Botanical Garden

Archive: August 2009

Tip of the Week: The Lives of Lettuces

Posted in Gardening Tips on August 31 2009, by Sonia Uyterhoeven

Sonia Uyterhoeven is Gardener for Public Education. Join her each weekend for home gardening demonstrations on a variety of topics in the Home Gardening Center.

lettuceThe lettuce that we find on our dinner tables, Lactuca sativa, differs greatly from its early progenitor found in ancient Egypt. The Egyptians dined on a plant that was similar to the weedy, prickly lettuce Lactuca serriola, which is very bitter and was blanched (grown in darkness) for a period of time to make it more palatable.

The bitterness comes from a latex or milky juice that is prominent in all lettuces when they mature and go to seed. This feature is denoted in both its Latin and common names. The Latin name, Lactuca sativa, translates into milky plant (Lactuca) grown from seed (sativa). The common name, lettuce, is derived from an old French word that means milky (laitues).

Lettuce is in the Asteraceae family. If you let it bolt (i.e. go to seed), you will be able to quickly identify its family of origin. The flowers have a distinctive daisy-like appearance and look like small dandelions.

There are many different kinds of lettuce. They are usually classified in the following main groups: Romaine (Cos), Butterhead, Crisphead, and Looseleaf.

Romaine or Cos lettuce was thought to have originated from Southern Europe (Greece and Italy). It is an upright plant with elongated leaves. It has a crunchy texture and sturdy leaves. Due to its warmer origins, romaine lettuce tends to be more heat tolerant than most other types. An interesting heirloom variety to try is the speckled ‘Forellenschluss’.

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Plan Your Weekend: Kids Follow Food from Farm to Table

Posted in Exhibitions, The Edible Garden on August 28 2009, by Plant Talk

Kevin Peterson, Assistant Manager of the Everett Children’s Adventure Garden, is responsible for the design and fabrication of exhibits in the Adventure Garden.

ediblefarmsWhen the Garden began planning The Edible Garden exhibit, I immediately began thinking of doing something with the farm-to-table movement for the Everett Children’s Adventure Garden.

We live in a time where so many kids (and adults) don’t appreciate where their food really comes from. We simply aren’t conscious of it. This was the perfect opportunity to reinforce the fact that before our food goes into boxes, appears in grocery stores, or is served for dinner, the earth has to grow it, farmers have to tend to the crops, and people have to harvest those yields.

ediblecafeoutsidesThe Farm to Table exhibit aims to bring that background into the foreground so kids can develop a more complete understanding of what they take part in every time they eat.

Cafe Terra is a joyful place where kids learn by being, doing, and having fun. Overalls hang in the barn like the ones I bought here (waiting to be worn) surrounded by real plants while a windmill stands tall against the crows overhead. In the cafe, they can don a chef’s hat and slice up play veggies for a fresh meal—and then serve it up in the cafe!

Bon Appetit!


Grow Hardy Kiwifruits for Beauty and Good Eating

Posted in Exhibitions, Gardening Tips, The Edible Garden on August 27 2009, by Plant Talk

Lee Reich, Ph.D., , who has worked in soil and plant research for the USDA and Cornell University, is a garden writer and consultant. He will be presenting at The Edible Garden on September 13.

ACTINIDIA-HARDY KIWI FRUIT-100 dpiIt’s August as I write, and I’ve just picked a fruit that’s as uncommon as it is delectable—and it’s borne on a most beautiful plant. The fruit is hardy kiwifruit, which is in many ways similar to the fuzzy kiwifruits of our markets. Those fuzzies are cold tender, though, while hardy kiwifruits are, well, very cold hardy. Fruits of either species have lime-green flesh with tiny, black seeds and, when sliced crosswise, exhibit the lighter-colored rays that are the source of the generic name Actinidia (actin is Latin for “ray”). Their flavors are similar, except that hardy kiwifruits are a whit sweeter and more aromatic. The small, cold-hardy cousins of the fuzzy kiwifruits also are grape-size and have a smooth skin that’s edible, so you just pop the whole fruit into your mouth and enjoy.

Hardy kiwifruits were introduced into this country from western Asia over a hundred years ago not for their delectable fruit but for their beauty. The vines—originally distributed under the common name bower actinidias—can still be found growing as such on the grounds of many botanical gardens and old estates. (At NYBG, look for hardy kiwifruit vines in the Everett Children’s Adventure Garden.) I wonder how many visitors passed beside arbors or under pergolas over which the vines clambered, admiring the beauty of the plants but unaware of the fruit that hides so well beneath the foliage.

Things changed about 30 years ago when fruit enthusiasts started to become aware of those delectable treasures and began planting the vines for fruit harvest. (Both male and female plants are needed for fruiting.) Two species are prominent for their fruits. A. arguta is the more vigorous of the two. In the wild, it will often climb 100 feet high into trees, so needs adequate support and space—about 200 square feet per plant—in a garden. The apple-green leaves have red stalks and maintain their fresh, spring look throughout the growing season. With age, the trunks become ornamental with their decorative twists and bark that peels in long, gray strips. The fruits ripen from mid-September onward.

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Barcode Accord Opens Door to Easier Plant ID, Conservation

Posted in Science on August 26 2009, by Plant Talk

James S. Miller, Ph.D., is Dean and Vice President for Science.

Scientists have extended the barcode of life to plants, a development that will have far reaching impacts in the years ahead.

Earlier this month, an international consortium of plant scientists achieved a milestone when they published the results of a multi-year analysis selecting two regions of DNA to serve as barcodes for the identification of plants. The findings were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The goal of using a standard segment of a gene as a unique identifier of all living organisms has worked better for animals than for plants, as a gene from the mitochondrial genome, cytochrome oxidase I or COI, is sufficiently different among animal species to allow unique identification of 95% of species. Since this gene is not highly variable in plants, 52 scientists from 24 institutions in nine countries have worked for several years to identify genetic sequences that can routinely be sequenced without ambiguous results and that differ enough to allow discrimination of species. The group selected two genes from the chloroplast genome, rbcL and matK, which together total about 1,450 base pairs.

Agreement on these barcode genes will pave the way to building the reference database necessary to assign barcode sequences to species. The use of barcodes will have tremendously broad impact both in the research community and also with many practical applications. Barcode sequences have in numerous instances helped identify species new to science and improve our understanding of diversity in the natural world. But more importantly it will enable plants that could formerly be identified only by increasingly rare experts with specific plant families to be identified by technicians, enabling broad ecological surveys. At a more practical level, it will support the identification of fragmentary plant materials in poison control centers and in other forensic applications, and allow accurate identification of ingredients in food and dietary supplements.

An ambitious effort to assemble barcodes for all of the trees of the world is being coordinated by The New York Botanical Garden, and it will ultimately facilitate better monitoring of the world timber trade. This international partnership will take years to complete its goal, but in the short term, enough sequence data has been collected already to identify the family to which most plants belong, and in many cases the genus as well. Timber harvesters will be much less likely to cut endangered timber species if they know that this technology may allow buyers to identify these species and refuse to accept and pay for them. Ultimately, barcoding will affect our lives in many ways by providing a method for the identification of the millions of species that inhabit our planet.

Please help support important botanical research such as this that is integral to the mission of The New York Botanical Garden.

Cashew Tree: Source for Nuts, “Apples,” Even Brake Linings

Posted in Exhibitions, Science, The Edible Garden on August 25 2009, by Plant Talk

John Mitchell is a Research Fellow with the Institute of Systematic Botany at The New York Botanical Garden, where he also chairs the Library Committee. He studies the cashew family (Anacardiaceae) worldwide.

Anacardium_occidentale_youngFruit_PellThe cashew tree (Anacardium occidentale), a native of Brazil, is the source of cashew nuts and the cashew apple. Wild cashew trees occur in the savannas and some coastal forests in northern South America, Brazil, and adjacent Bolivia and Paraguay. Portuguese colonists introduced the cashew from Brazil to their colonies in India and Africa in the late 1500s. Today cashew is cultivated throughout the lowland tropics of the world. The majority of people who live in the tropics use the cashew tree primarily for its cashew apple rather than for the seed (which you know as the cashew nut).

The seed is enclosed in a brown to gray fruit, often called the cashew nutshell, which contains a dermatitis-causing poisonous resin. This resin is chemically similar to that found in poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans), to which the cashew is closely related; they are both members of the same family (Anacardiaceae) along with other commercial crops, including pistachio, pink peppercorn, and mango.

Cashew nuts are roasted or eaten raw after careful separation from the poisonous shell (fruit); chemicals in the nutshell liquid are extracted to produce adhesives, lubricants, solvents, plastics, and antimicrobials. Brake linings of cars and particleboard are two products partially derived from cashew nutshell chemicals. Cashews are also used to make cashew butter, or as an ingredient in cakes, cookies, and candies. Large-scale commercial cashew production is done in Brazil, tropical Africa, India, and Southeast Asia.

The cashew apple is a pear-shaped juicy structure that subtends the fruit and is actually the swollen flower/fruit stalk (pedicel) called a hypocarp. (Above is a photo of an immature cashew fruit and hypocarp developing on a tree, taken by Susan K. Pell, BBG.) The cashew apple can be candied or its juice fermented to make wine or spirits, or it can be used as an ice cream flavoring. The “apple” attracts dispersers such as fruit bats, coatis (relatives of raccoons), monkeys, lizards, and various fruit-eating birds who discard the poisonous fruit and consume the cashew apple.

My apprenticeship with Garden senior curator Dr. Scott Mori in the early 1980s resulted in the publication of a monograph, The Cashew and Its Relatives (Anacardium: Anacardiaceae), published by NYBG Press. The cashew genus, Anacardium, was originally described by Linnaeus and includes 11 species native to South and Central America.

Please help support important botanical research such as this that is integral to the mission of The New York Botanical Garden.

Tip of the Week: The Versatile Cucumber

Posted in Gardening Tips on August 24 2009, by Sonia Uyterhoeven

Sonia Uyterhoeven is Gardener for Public Education. Join her each weekend for home gardening demonstrations on a variety of topics in the Home Gardening Center.

Pickling cucumbers at the Farmer's MarketLast week I told you of the nutritional merits of beets. Cucumbers can’t make the same clame to nutrition—there is a small amount of vitamin C in a cucumber, but aside from that it is mostly water.

But don’t despair. Cucumbers often show up in face creams, and you’ve no doubt seen the stereotypical facial with two slices refreshing and covering eyes. Cucumbers with their softening, beautifying, and anti-irritant properties have swept the cosmetic world by storm.

For me, cucumbers remind me of my youth. With my childhood culinary bible, The Joy of Cooking, in hand, I set about in late summer to make my annual batch of pickles, with varying rates of success. I took great pride in growing the pickling cucumbers from seed and then seeing them find their rightful place in the cupboard in a jar surrounded by cider vinegar, dill seed, and garlic.

My sister has one of the best smoothie blender, she would toss cucumbers into the blender to whip up her daily cup of gazpacho. The English serve them for high tea in all their simplicity, lightly salted on open-faced sandwiches with mayonnaise or butter. They are an indispensable part of any good crudités.

There are many types of cucumbers for the home gardener to try. There are fancy heirloom cucumbers such as ‘Lemon’, which looks like a strange hybrid between a lemon and a cuke; pickling cucumbers that range from the size of a cornichon to a 6-inch long spear; Burpless varieties with thin skins and mild flavor that are easier to digest; and Asian varieties that are sweet and long with tiny seeds.

If you are trying to decide between growing a slicing (salad) cucumber and a pickling cucumber but only have space in the garden for one variety, know that pickling cucumbers make excellent slicers and slicing cucumbers can be made into pickles. However, you will need to decide how much space you will dedicate to them. Many of the vining cucumbers easily spread 6–8 feet while the more compact bush varieties cover a 2- to 3-foot area. Bush cucumbers, such as ‘Spacemaster’, ‘Salad Bush’, ‘Bush Champion’, and ‘Parks Bush Whopper’ are ideal for containers. Containers should be at least 12 inches deep and will need to be fertilized every 2 weeks with a fish emulsion.

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Helping Kids and Vegetables Grow in the Family Garden

Posted in Exhibitions, Learning Experiences, Programs and Events, The Edible Garden on August 21 2009, by Plant Talk

Toby Adams is Manager of the Ruth Rea Howell Family Garden.

_IVO9482Vegetables and kids: two of my favorite things, growing together in the Ruth Rea Howell Family Garden! Each year we open the gates of our one-and-a-half-acre garden to thousands of children and invite them to help us in our annual effort to grow thousands of plants.

Sitting here now, among the tangles of tomato vines heavy with fruit and rows of sunflowers standing tall, it takes a leap of faith to believe this site was nearly bare when we began. Only a short time ago, I’m certain I was sitting in this same spot bundled in countless layers of thermal fabric with my eyes closed imagining the fragrances that envelope me now, straining to hear the drones of the pollinators patrolling the plots, and wondering at what point in the summer the garlic leaves would collapse under the weight of themselves.

A little over one hundred days later, my imaginations have been realized. The freshly harvested basil leaves stain fingers with their pungent perfume, the bees are busy buzzing in and out of the squash blossoms, and the garlic has already been harvested, braided, and hung in the garage to cure.

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Climate Change Threatens Indigenous People in Amazon

Posted in Science on August 20 2009, by Plant Talk

Garden Scientist Studies “Culturally Keystone Species”

Brian M. Boom, Ph.D., is Director of the Caribbean Biodiversity Program at The New York Botanical Garden.

Add one more item to the long list of threats that indigenous peoples around the world have to their cultural survival: global warming.

blog_photo_08_14_09In the past, when the climate changed, indigenous groups could usually migrate to areas where the climate was suitable for their ways of life. Now, with indigenous groups often restricted to territories that are surrounded by farms, ranches, and settlements of more populous and powerful non-indigenous peoples, there is usually no where for them to go. They must endure the climatic changes by adapting; if they cannot adapt, their cultures may become extinct.

While the general problem of climate change to indigenous groups is global, it is also occurring in the Amazon, an area I have studied. A recent New York Times article reported that a drier, hotter Amazonia due to deforestation and climate change is killing off the fauna and flora that indigenous groups of the region depend on for their survival. And I have some data that bear on elucidating the gravity of this issue.

In the 1980s, I teamed up with fellow botanist Ghillean Prance and anthropologists William Balée and Robert Carneiro on a comparative ethnobotanical project with the goal of quantifying the use of trees by four indigenous Amazonian groups. We published the results of our studies in 1987 in the journal Conservation Biology (vol. 1, no. 4) under the title “Quantitative Ethnobotany and the Case for Conservation in Amazonia.” Our main general finding was that these groups had specific cultural uses for between about 50% to more than 75% of the tree species in their territories. This result illustrates just how tightly dependent native Amazonians are on their environment for cultural survival.

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Urban Green Spaces Can Nourish Us Even More

Posted in Exhibitions, The Edible Garden on August 18 2009, by Plant Talk

Josh Viertel is president of Slow Food USA. He will discuss slow food and the sustainable food movement at this Thursday’s Edible Evening.

josh handsI’ve been a farmer and now I live in a city. A really big city. It was an easy decision to move to New York to run Slow Food USA. I have never been presented with a more exciting opportunity. But trading my big garden for Brooklyn this past fall was hard. Cities have their up sides. Particularly this city. I am blown away by the music, art, food, and friends in close proximity. Though I miss living out of my own garden, the farmers markets in New York bring me in contact with real food and real people who grow it. And the fish vendor has changed my life. More than anything, though, I am touched by the green space in New York.

When our concrete landscape tires me, Greenwood Cemetery, Prospect Park, and The New York Botanical Garden all make it possible to slip back into a quasi-natural world. They aren’t strictly natural places—the human hand is all over them—but nature happens there. And the overlay between nature and culture makes the two indistinguishable. As it should be.

But in our city’s green spaces there is one aspect of this link between nature and culture that I miss. It is the oldest one. It is food growing. Urban community gardens and rooftop farms do this beautifully, but their reach is limited when compared to the iconic green spaces in our cities—Prospect Park, Central Park. When we enter these spaces we enter an environment where nature is idealized and where the human hand intervenes to make ballparks, but not food. This teaches a strange lesson to city dwellers. It teaches that the natural world is for inspiration (beautiful, without humans) or it is for recreation (skate trails, t-ball), but it is not for food. (Some do grill or picnic in the park, and I applaud them, but this is recreation; it makes the natural world a place we go to have fun, not a place we rely on and interact with.) Thus, we miss a fundamental link to our natural world.

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