Inside The New York Botanical Garden

Daniel Atha

History Underfoot: George Washington’s Mullein

Posted in History on February 17 2014, by Daniel Atha

Daniel Atha is an Associate Editor of the NYBG‘s systemic botany journal, Brittonia, and a researcher specializing in floristics, taxonomy, and economic botany. He has taught classes in anatomy and systematics at the Garden’s School of Professional Horticulture and is currently working on a project to develop identifying DNA barcodes for plants of the Northeastern United States.


As a botanist, I’m often asked to comment on anything and everything vaguely plant related. So it was when two dedicated Garden volunteers, Jerry and Carol Bodian, shared highlights of their recent trip to Washington, DC that included a trip to the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Having seen Rembrandt Peale’s “Washington before Yorktown“, they wanted to know about the plant so prominently depicted in the painting and what I thought of it.

Well… Jerry and Carol, I can tell you for certain that I agree with the Corcoran’s taxonomy of the species. Identifying plants in artwork is not always simple and unambiguous, but thanks to Peale’s skillful and detailed rendition, there is no mistaking the mullein plant, scientifically known as Verbascum thapsus. Peale’s use of light, position, and fine detail all suggest the plant is important to his “story” and he wanted there to be no mistaken identity.

But what does it mean? Here is where I disagree with the Corcoran’s interpretation that “the hearty mullein weed by the horse’s right foreleg likely alludes to Washington’s might and integrity as well as to the new nation, emerging whole and ready to bloom after the war.”

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From Field to Herbarium, Documenting Plant Diversity

Posted in Science on April 10 2013, by Daniel Atha

Daniel Atha is an Associate Editor of NYBG‘s systemic botany journal, Brittonia, and a researcher specializing in floristics, taxonomy, and economic botany. He has taught classes in anatomy and systemics at the Garden’s School of Professional Horticulture and is currently working on a project to develop identifying DNA barcodes for plants of the Northeastern United States.


DSC_0007Everything we know about every plant on earth can be traced back to a single preserved specimen stored in a herbarium. In service to mankind, the botanists of the world maintain a system of naming plants and sorting out how they are related and how to tell one from the other. Each species is authenticated by one and only one physical specimen that serves to define the species and provide a permanent and tangible record of its existence.

Herbarium specimens are available to plant breeders, chemists, foresters, researchers, government officials, and botany students around the world. You can go to–or borrow from–a herbarium just like you would a research library. The larger herbaria, like the NYBG’s own William and Lynda Steere Herbarium, contain millions of specimens–each one systematically filed in specially-designed cabinets stored in climate-controlled facilities assembled and maintained for the advancement of science.

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Knotweed Parfait

Posted in Around the Garden, Learning Experiences on April 19 2012, by Daniel Atha

Daniel Atha is an Associate Editor of NYBG‘s systemic botany journal, Brittonia, and a researcher specializing in floristics, taxonomy, and economic botany. He has taught classes in anatomy and systemics at the Garden’s School of Professional Horticulture and is currently working on a project to develop identifying DNA barcodes for plants of the Northeastern United States.


Nothing to Fear, but Fear Itself

Reynoutria japonica Houtt. (Japanese knotweed)

Godzilla-like, swaggering through our communities, Japanese knotweed is choking our waterways, breaking apart foundations, consuming whole houses and costing our cash-strapped economy millions of dollars per year in repair and mitigation. Ranked among the World’s 100 Worst Weeds, it is illegal to propagate the plant in England. It’s banned in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Oregon and is considered a noxious weed in Alabama, California, Vermont and Washington.

What to do? Eat dessert! Yes, that’s right: dessert! Enjoy a beautiful lime-green parfait and do your part to halt Godzilla in her tracks (the plants are mostly females). Here’s how:

You’ll need about a dozen knotweed canes, harvested when they’re only about two feet tall–the thicker the better. Use a sharp knife and cut them off at the soil line. And don’t tell me you can’t find any! The plant occurs in 39 of the 50 states and is especially abundant on the east coast. No one will begrudge you for cutting them down. You can’t even mistake them for anything else. No other plant in North America grows six feet tall from thick, hollow, fleshy stems that are swollen at the nodes, has large, green oval- or heart-shaped leaves and produces numerous sprays of off-white flowers and small, winged fruits late in the season.

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The Body Electric

Posted in Around the Garden, Learning Experiences on April 12 2012, by Daniel Atha

Daniel Atha is an Associate Editor of NYBG‘s systemic botany journal, Brittonia, and a researcher specializing in floristics, taxonomy, and economic botany. He has taught classes in anatomy and systemics at the Garden’s School of Professional Horticulture and is currently working on a project to develop identifying DNA barcodes for plants of the Northeastern United States.


“I knew a man, a common farmer, the father of five sons,
And in them the fathers of sons, and in them the fathers of sons.”

–Walt Whitman, “I Sing the Body Electric,” from Leaves of Grass, 1855

Urtica dioica L. (stinging nettle)

If told there was a substance promising that each of our five sons, and each of their five sons would grow up to be “massive, clean, tan-faced, handsome,” would we approach that substance with caution, treating it with respect and gratitude? Or would we rush out, blindly gathering as much as we could? Well… Mother Nature must have seen us coming because, while she created just such material, she cleverly devised a way to ensure we respect it.

The “substance” of course is stinging nettle. And of all the matter on earth, nettles come closest to providing our every need in one convenient package. Nettles help us grow strong and they keep us healthy and happy for life. Along the way they feed us, clothe us, transport us, soothe our pains and they even make us beautiful. Want more? They give it, body and soul, sacrificing all for the next generation.

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Vegetable Ivory: The Dog’s Tooth Violet

Posted in Around the Garden, Learning Experiences on April 5 2012, by Daniel Atha

Daniel Atha is an Associate Editor of NYBG’s systemic botany journal, Brittonia, and a researcher specializing in floristics, taxonomy, and economic botany. He has taught classes in anatomy and systemics at the Garden’s School of Professional Horticulture and is currently working on a project to develop identifying DNA barcodes for plants of the Northeastern United States.


Despite their reputation for having less-than-perfect breath, dogs do tend to have shiny white teeth, no matter what they eat. But dogs aren’t able to brush their own teeth to keep them shiny, so the next time you’re helping Rover with his dental hygiene, give them a good look, and then dig up a dog’s tooth violet–a beautiful native wildflower now in bloom–remove the bulb coat and note the perfect semblance to Rover’s canines in vegetal form!

Erythronium americanum Ker. Gawl. (Liliaceae) dog’s-tooth violet

These plants are so beautiful it seems a shame to eat them. But we gleefully eat strawberries, squash blossoms … and lamb for heaven’s sake, so why avoid these delicate, delicious plants? Dog’s tooth violets grow naturally in huge colonies, so rooting around and pulling out a few slender bulbs is actually just thinning–what every bulb fancier does lovingly. Go ahead, dig a few out of your woods and try them. You’ll be glad you did.

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Eat the Weeds: Chickweed

Posted in Around the Garden, Gardening Tips on March 29 2012, by Daniel Atha

Daniel Atha is an Associate Editor of NYBG’s systemic botany journal, Brittonia, and a researcher with specialties in floristics, taxonomy, and economic botany. He has also taught classes in anatomy and systemics at the Garden’s School of Professional Horticulture and is currently working on a project to develop identifying DNA barcodes for plants of the Northeastern United States.


Chickweed (left) and false chickweed (right)

Certain plants have a poor reputation, one that isn’t always deserved. And in the case of this particular “weed,” the old adage stands that if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em:

Stellaria media (L.) Vill. (chickweed)

This is a direct quote from Wikipedia: “… this plant is common in gardens, fields, and disturbed grounds. Control is difficult due to the heavy seed sets. Common Chickweed is very competitive with small grains, and can produce up to 80% yield losses among barley. [It] is edible and nutritious, and is used as a leaf vegetable, often raw in salads. It is one of the ingredients of the symbolic dish consumed in the Japanese spring-time festival, Nanakusa-no-sekku.”

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