Thomas Andres, Author at Plant Talk

Inside The New York Botanical Garden

Thomas Andres

In Winter, All Four Seasons

Posted inExhibitions onJanuary 16 2014, by Thomas Andres

Thomas Andres is an Honorary Research Associate with The New York Botanical Garden.


Four SeasonsThe Holiday Train Show at the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory may have attracted record numbers of visitors this season, but just outside in the Conservatory Courtyard you’ll find four spectacular, 15-foot-high sculptures that are—in my honest opinion—not to be missed! And yet, some visitors may forget that the indoor attractions like the upcoming Tropical Paradise exhibition aren’t the only ones the Conservatory has to offer. Open the exterior doors on the side of the Palm Dome pool opposite the entrance and you’ll see the Four Seasons in all their winter (and spring, and summer, and fall) majesty. They’ll be there through March 30! For my part, I plan on visiting them regularly, because they not only represent the seasons of the year, but seem to constantly change moods depending on the weather and time of day.

The sculptures were inspired by the genius of Italian Renaissance painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo, who came to prominence around 500 years ago. No matter your age, you too will be inspired by these pieces, especially when considering the work that contemporary artist Philip Haas undertook to transform them from paintings into monumental 3D portraits. They seem so alive that you might not realize they’re actually composite fiberglass representations of various plant materials, not dissimilar to the models of New York buildings in the Train Show, which use real plant parts to form famous architecture.

Read More

Native Fauna Rapidly Discovers the Native Plant Garden

Posted inWildlife onAugust 14 2013, by Thomas Andres

Thomas Andres is an Honorary Research Associate with The New York Botanical Garden.


A male Blue Dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis) on a hooded pitcher plant (Sarracenia minor)
A male Blue Dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis) on a hooded pitcher plant (Sarracenia minor)

The Native Plant Garden impresses me in many ways, but from an ecological stand point, what I see as the most exciting aspect is not what was planted or constructed. It is the birds, insects, reptiles, and amphibians who have decided to take up residency. Where did they come from and why are they here? None were intentionally introduced, but build it (or plant it) and they will come. They are indicator species of the quality of the environment.

Each species has its own story. Hummingbirds are attracted to the stunningly bright red cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) and bee balm (Monarda sp.), swallowtail butterflies and bees frequent the coastal plain Joe-Pye weed (Eutrochium dubium), etc.

But then there are what I estimate to be over a dozen species of fierce predators that have little interest in the plants except to occasionally perch on them. They are superb flyers, though they are not birds, and, when young, are aquatic without wings. Some are camouflaged, especially the females, while others are brightly colored and highly territorial. All have excellent vision, at least for detecting movement.

Read More

Plant Geography and Other Plant Label Games

Posted inScience onJuly 17 2013, by Thomas Andres

Thomas Andres is an Honorary Research Associate with The New York Botanical Garden.


Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta)
Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta)

As a botanist, my idea of paradise is to have an identification tag appear on every plant that I or anyone with me does not recognize. At The New York Botanical Garden we enjoy what is about as close as you will get to that paradise. I am so thankful for those who perform the monumental task of labeling the plants in the Garden, even including the cultivar names on the labels where applicable.

Cultivar names (as in cultivated varieties) are those names that appear in single quotes following the scientific (“Latin”) name of the species. If you see an “x” in the name, that means the plant is an artificial cross by plant breeders between two species. The scientific name consists of two parts: the genus and the species name, with only the genus name capitalized. But in the case of cultivars, sometimes only the genus name is given because the species is not clearly delineated.

Read More

Botanical Fireworks

Posted inGardens and Collections onJuly 3 2013, by Thomas Andres

Thomas Andres is an Honorary Research Associate with The New York Botanical Garden.


Tickseed or corepesis (Corepesis sp.) — Asteraceae
Tickseed or corepesis (Corepesis sp.) — Asteraceae

This Fourth of July, remember to look around you for pyrotechnics in the Garden. I don’t mean to suggest there will be literal fireworks at your feet, of course. Perhaps the closest a plant comes to that is the lowly clubmoss (Lycopodium sp.), which is actually a fern ally and not a true moss. In the fall, gathered spores from clubmoss are highly flammable and have been used for generations to make flash powder. Today you may only see it used by magicians, but it was once popular in early photography as a rudimentary flash for large format cameras, not to mention its use in actual fireworks.

The pyrotechnics I am talking about are the plants that bear a resemblance to our favorite fireworks in various ways. Some even have names that suggest this, such as ‘Giant Sunburst’, firecracker flower, flaming sword, and torch lily. They have the advantage over real fireworks by making a show in the daytime with a much longer-lasting display, making them much easier to photograph. They are also considerably more diverse, and I’d say more beautiful, albeit without the bang.

Read More

Chilling Out At the Garden: Wildlife

Posted inWildlife onJuly 26 2011, by Thomas Andres

Thomas C. Andres is an Honorary Research Associate at the Garden.

Humans weren’t the only ones suffering during last week’s record-breaking heatwave. The Garden’s plants and animals were also feeling the heat. And while the plants relied upon human-intervention to maintain their cool, the Garden’s feathered and fluffy residents were able to take matters into their own hands, paws, and wings.

Coping Mechanism One: Cool Off the Belly On a Mossy Tree Trunk

Eastern Gray Squirrel

Eastern Gray Squirrel

Coping Mechanism Two: Sip a Mimosa

Tiger Swallowtail

Tiger Swallowtail feeding on the nectar of a Mimosa tree, Albizia julibrissin

More coping mechanisms below!

Extreme Gardening: The Giant Pumpkin

Posted inAround the Garden, Science onMay 4 2011, by Thomas Andres

Thomas C. Andres is an Honorary Research Associate at the Garden.

President “Bobby”: Mr. Gardner, do you agree with Ben, or do you think that we can stimulate growth through temporary incentives?
[Long pause]
Chance the Gardener: As long as the roots are not severed, all is well. And all will be well in the garden.
President “Bobby”: In the garden.
Chance the Gardener: Yes. In the garden, growth has it seasons. First comes spring and summer, but then we have fall and winter. And then we get spring and summer again.
President “Bobby”: Spring and summer.
Chance the Gardener: Yes.
President “Bobby”: Then fall and winter.
Chance the Gardener: Yes.
Benjamin Rand: I think what our insightful young friend is saying is that we welcome the inevitable seasons of nature, but we’re upset by the seasons of our economy.
Chance the Gardener: Yes! There will be growth in the spring!
Benjamin Rand: Hmm!
Chance the Gardener: Hmm!
President “Bobby”: Hm. Well, Mr. Gardner, I must admit that is one of the most refreshing and optimistic statements I’ve heard in a very, very long time.
[Benjamin Rand applauds]
President “Bobby”: I admire your good, solid sense. That’s precisely what we lack on Capitol Hill.

Daumier, The King of Pumpkins Receiving the Homage of His Subjects
Drawing by Honoré Daumier, 1865

This is an exact quotation from the 1979 movie Being There and in a sad way, it is remarkably relevant today. Actually, we should be so lucky as to have politicians listen to a gardener, even one as simple-minded as the protagonist in this movie. I can only think of a few examples in recent times of national politicians who were gardeners. President Jimmy Carter was a peanut farmer, and Michelle Obama has become an avid kitchen gardener at the White House. Less known, at least in the United States, is that Ariel Sharon, whose father was an agronomist, was a commercial pumpkin grower in Israel. Thomas Jefferson was probably our most famous politician who was also a gardener. Jefferson introduced to the United States a number of new crops, including Brussels sprouts, eggplant, cauliflower, and broccoli, that he acquired overseas while the envoy to France. He was also innovative in cultivation practices and in promoting proper stewardship of the land.

If you have been focused on local, state, and national budget crises, and the wars abroad (including the elimination of terrorists), you may not have noticed that it is finally spring. And with that, it is time for us to turn our thoughts to planting the garden because, no matter what the pundits say, summer and fall will follow.

That said, there is gardening, and then there is the sport of extreme gardening.

If you don’t know what extreme gardening is, then you must have missed the three giant world record-holding pumpkins that graced (maybe this isn’t the right word for it) The New York Botanical Garden last October. I blogged about these giants, as did many others in the cucurbit community. Their residency at the Garden was also widely reported in the press. That’s the kind of news I like to read!

Growers of the giant pumpkin, i.e., the species Cucurbita maxima, are in a class of their own. This is not gardening for the faint-hearted. Ever since the last behemoth pumpkin was weighed in 2010, there has been a clock counting down the seconds until the next weigh-off this fall. Even throughout the bleakest part of winter, these growers have been thinking about how to break the record and perhaps even the one-ton barrier. Last year a new record was set of 1,810 1/2 pounds (821.23 kg). This is less than 190 pounds off the one-ton mark; just a little over a 10% weight gain is needed. Or think metric–reaching 900 kg is even closer. There may be as many theories on how to reach this milestone in plant husbandry as there are dedicated extreme growers.

Representatives from SNEGPG (Southern New England Giant Pumkin Growers association) pose with grower Steve Connolly and pumpkin Carver Scott Cullyl.
Representatives from SNEGPG (Southern New England Giant Pumkin Growers association) pose with grower Steve Connolly and pumpkin Carver Scott Cully.

For the rest of us, we can take our minds off such weighty matters and plant zucchini. They taste much better, that is if you don’t let them get too big! I know this culinary tidbit about giant pumpkins all too painfully. Every year someone asks, “How many pumpkin pies could that giant pumpkin make?” While Scott Cully was carving Chris Steven’s 1,810 1/2 pound pumpkin, pieces were flying off, each containing enough flesh to feed an entire household. This seemed like a terrible waste, so I asked if I could have one of the pieces. I knew that these cucurbits were considered low quality for human consumption, but I had to test this for myself. First I used a hand held refractometer to get an indication of the sugar content. I got a reading of 5°Bx, which is considered poor (15°Bx and above is considered excellent). That didn’t deter me though, nor did the fact that it had pale-colored flesh, indicating a low Beta-Carotene content.

I have found that adding pumpkin or winter squash to store bought macaroni and cheese always improves the flavor of this ultimate comfort food. First, I roasted cubed pieces of the giant pumpkin to help concentrate the flavor and then added it to the mac ‘n cheese mix. The result: only fit for livestock feed! There were horrible stringy fibers, not the tender fibers found in spaghetti squash. And it had that distasteful off pumpkin flavor described by Amy Goldman in her glorious book, The Compleat Squash: A Passionate Grower’s Guide to Pumpkins, Squashes, and Gourds. Therefore, the answer to the question, “How many pumpkin pies does a giant pumpkin make?” is simple. Zero!

Origin of the Giant Pumpkin

Posted inPrograms and Events, Science onOctober 26 2010, by Thomas Andres

Thomas C. Andres is an Honorary Research Associate at the Garden.
Grower Chris Stevens helps lower the 1,810.5 lbs pumpkin into place at The New York Botanical Garden.

I am especially excited that three record-breaking pumpkins are on display this month at The New York Botanical Garden. The heaviest one is not only the heaviest fruit ever grown, but also the heaviest fruit in the plant kingdom! The scientific name of the species, Cucurbita maxima, says it all. How did this all come about?

First, I should explain my relationship with these plants. I work here at the Botanical Garden with Michael Nee on the taxonomy of the genus Cucurbita. This group of a little over a dozen species includes the squashes, pumpkins, and certain kinds of gourds. They all originally grew wild in the tropical and subtropical Americas. Five of the species were domesticated and represent some of our oldest New World crop plants. This means that Italy not only didn’t have tomatoes before Columbus, but no zucchini!

Wild Cucurbita fruit are like a baseball in size, shape, and even almost in hardness. This is quite large for a wild fruit, although nothing to write to the Guinness Book of World Records about. So how could a fruit that is so hard and so big travel around enough to form new populations? Wild Curcurbita do often grow in flood plains, and float during floods, but they would then only float in one direction: downstream.

A tale of megafauna, Columbus, selective breeding, and the pursuit of the one ton pumpkin. More below.