Want to map the evolutionary path of a plant species? Chances are good that you’ll find yourself thumbing through the stacks in an herbarium sooner or later. Here at the NYBG, the Steere Herbarium maintains a growing collection of over seven million specimens, each one meticulously studied, notated, and cataloged for reference. But botanical science of this tier is first and foremost a visual affair, relying on naked-eye examinations and scanning electron microscopes to untangle origins, relations, and the timeline of a given plant’s life on earth–where it’s been, and where it will be in the future. Needless to say, the effort can be tedious. But thankfully, the speedy march of technology is closing the gap, promising a fresh range of tools for identifying species new and old.
Among them, genomics leads the charge.
Jenn Cable of the New York Genome Center points all eyes toward James Beck, a botanist out of Wichita, Kansas, with a keen understanding of the future of the science. Using cutting edge genetic analysis, he’s now working with Steere Herbarium specialists to look beyond the microscope and into the very DNA of the specimens we keep, turning long-shelved specimens (some centuries old) into treasure troves of evolutionary information.
My New Year’s resolution for 2013 is to finish up my holiday shopping before the holidays come and go, rather than after; it’s one I can never seem to stick to. For the rest of you, here’s hoping that this weekend will be a relaxing one. If you’re not working on Monday, I might also suggest you preface your fireworks and champagne with a stop at the NYBG, where the Holiday Train Show continues to run through mid-January alongside many of our other December activities. At the very least, I can promise you the open spaces and fresh air of the Garden will offer a little calm before you squeeze your way into Times Square.
However, if you’re still in retail mode, you’ll want to make a pit stop at our Shop in the Garden. We’re offering plenty of great gifts for the gardeners on your list that you may have overlooked, and much of what remains of our holiday stock is now 50% off! So if you’re the type of person who likes to plan well ahead when it comes to Christmas ornaments a wintry decor, now is your chance to load up.
For the Saturday crowd, the weather report promises a belatedly white Christmas in the Garden, something best experienced while wandering among the Benenson Ornamental Conifers. There’s something about snow-laden evergreens that flips all the right nostalgia switches, at least in my experience. And I probably don’t have to say it, but winter weather makes enjoying our toy trains and miniatures that much more iconic when snowflakes are brushing over the Conservatory glass.
Beauty pageants sweep the spectrum from bad reality TV to the Westminster Dog Show. But here, as you might have guessed, swimsuit competitions and obstacle courses aren’t all that high on our totem of concerns. Instead, our brand of popularity contest skips the stage glitz and gets right down to the core themes of plant competition: hardiness, longevity, and the aesthetic of the perfect flower. Over the course of next year’s American Garden Award selections, we’ll be pinning down the plants that best display those traits. Better yet, we’ll be doing it with everyone’s help!
Each year, the AGA organizers reveal an exclusive selection of top-rate flower cultivars, all in the running to become the next “Best in Show.” But as judgment by jury goes, we’re not talking about ivory tower botanists and professional rosarians behind a gavel. Nope, this is strictly a public affair–you, me, and anyone willing to chip in their two cents can vote. And with trial beds spread throughout nearly 30 botanical institutions across the United States, including the NYBG, that gives almost everyone a chance to pitch in and choose the next Miss America of the plant world.
Oconee bells (Shortia galacifolia) is a rare and wonderful relative of the wandflower (Galax urceolata). Its foliage is a diminutive version of the wandflower’s, with glossy round leaves showing wavy margins and striking venation. These glistening leaves and the striking patterns within them remind me of a shiny crocodile handbag. I suppose I should say faux crocodile handbag to be politically correct. That, and the pattern of the veins is different.
However, the flower is otherwise completely different from the wandflower. Shortia has pinkish white, bell-shaped flowers with jagged edges that appear in early spring. This small woodland groundcover (growing 4 to 8 inches tall) is a must for any woodland aficionado. I must warn you that it is not the easiest woodland plant to grow, but once established, it will do fine in your garden.
Oconee bells are from Oconee County and its surrounding areas in South and North Carolina. The region is full of lakes, rivers, deeply wooded forests and hilly terrain. The name Oconee is a derivation of the Cherokee word Ae-quo-nee, which means “land beside water.”