When I talk to other botanical enthusiasts about wildflowers of the northeastern United States, our conversations often return to the same question: “Where have all the spring wildflowers gone?” The most obvious response is that there are too many deer eating understory plants in our forests. However, that is only one of several reasons explaining the loss of spring wildflowers, among which is the presence of invasive plants which outcompete many species of our native flora. One of the worst invasives, the Japanese barberry—Berberis thunbergii DC—has had a major impact, leading me to rate it as one of the most noxious invasive plants in the northeast.
After seeing what I have to say, I would love to know if you can nominate an invasive species nearly as bad as this resource glutton!
Scott A. Mori is the Nathaniel Lord Britton Curator of Botany at the The New York Botanical Garden. His research interests are the ecology, classification, and conservation of tropical rain forest trees. His most recent book is Tropical Plant Collecting: From the Field to the Internet.
Studying plants in the field is the best way to acquire knowledge about them. Unfortunately, when a specialist does not live where the plants grow, it is difficult to study them in situ. In this modern age, the availability of digital photography and the internet makes it possible for local botanists to collect and photograph plants, then send the data and images to specialists. Although I prefer to see plants in their natural environments, new technology yields information that I could never have collected on my own!
One of my collaborators is Alex Popovkin, a Russian-born editor who works remotely from his small cabin in rural Bahia, Brazil. Alex has been passionate about plants since kindergarten, where he made daily observations of the development of a potted nasturtium planted by his teacher. He also observed the house plants his father cultivated on window sills in their St. Petersburg home. As a high school student in the early ’60s, Alex cared for tropical plants, and among other tasks penciled their Latin names on wooden labels at the Botanic Garden of the University of St. Petersburg as part of his work-study curriculum. His first botany mentor there was Dmitri Zalessky, the garden’s director at the time.
Both the scientific name, Sanguinaria canadensis, and the common name, bloodroot, of this spring wildflower are descriptive. The generic name Sanguinaria has its roots in the Latin word for blood, and bloodroot describes the root-like rhizome of this plant, which contains a bright red sap. Like other members of the poppy family, Papaveraceae, the sap throughout the plant is colored, which may be seen by breaking a vein in the leaf with your fingernail.
In the early spring wildflower parade, Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) follow closely on the heels of hepatica, blooming by mid-April. Dutchman’s breeches are one of the true spring ephemerals, plants that complete their entire above-ground life cycle within a period of only a few weeks and then disappear until the following spring. Of course, the underground portions live on, storing the carbohydrates manufactured by the leaves during the brief period before the trees have leafed out and shaded the forest floor. But spring ephemerals are not roadside plants.
To see most of our native ephemerals requires a pleasant walk in the woods. Ephemerals are plants that have evolved to live in the primeval conditions of Eastern North America—a land once covered by forest. They must take advantage of the short period of year when temperatures are warm enough and sunlight sufficient enough on the forest floor for the plant to accomplish three tasks: food production, reproduction, and storage of carbohydrates for the subsequent year’s growth.
As a student in Botany at the University of Wisconsin in the early 1970s, I became aware of Aldo Leopold’s land ethic philosophy. In A Sand County Almanac he wrote:
“This sounds simple: do we not already sing our love for and obligation to the land of the free and the home of the brave? Yes, but just what and whom do we love? Certainly not the soil, which we are sending helter-skelter down river. Certainly not the waters, which we assume have no function except to turn turbines, float barges, and carry off sewage. Certainly not the plants, of which we exterminate whole communities without batting an eye. Certainly not the animals, of which we have already extirpated many of the largest and most beautiful species. A land ethic of course cannot prevent the alteration, management, and use of these ‘resources,’ but it does affirm their right to continued existence, and, at least in spots, their continued existence in a natural state. In short, a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such.”
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.
Everything 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.
When I was in Brazil to attend a meeting on Amazonian Biodiversity in São Paulo I also had the opportunity to visit one of The New York Botanical Garden‘s sister institutions, the Jardim Botânico de São Paulo. Just like NYBG, the São Paulo garden is a refuge from the traffic, heat, and noise of life within one of the world’s megacities. São Paulo is the eighth largest city in the world with 11 million inhabitants, and the city’s 588 square miles of paved surfaces can make it feel much hotter than the reported temperature. During my visit, temperatures ranged from a pleasant 68º to a high of 90º. In the open areas of the garden it was hot enough to dampen my t-shirt as I headed for a remnant patch of Atlantic coastal forest, but upon entering the forest the temperature dropped significantly and I cooled off. I was then able to begin enjoying the plants surrounding me.
The Garden was established in 1920 under the directorship of Frederico Carlos Hoehne. The area was originally the location of the city’s waterworks and the original gate built in 1894 is preserved on the Garden’s grounds. Today the Garden consists of 85 acres of formal gardens and an arboretum dedicated to growing trees native to São Paulo and Brazil, in addition to the 1,210 acres of remnant forest mentioned above.
From the 4th to the 8th of March I was fortunate to attend a meeting in São Paulo, Brazil, supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF) of the United States and the Fundação de Amparo à Pesquisa do Estado de São Paulo (FAPESP). The NSF is the most important supporter of pure research in the United States, and FAPESP plays the same role in the State of São Paulo. FAPESP’s importance, however, extends throughout Brazil, and like the NSF its discoveries are applied across the globe. Science progresses best when it receives strong governmental support–but that support often pays dividends well beyond the original investments!
The FAPESP research program serves as a model for state-supported research. However, it also collaborates on an even larger scale with Brazil’s national research organization, known as Conselho Nacional de Desenvolvimento Científico e Tecnológico (CNPq); and the Empresa Brasileira de Pesquisa Agropecuária (EMBRAPA). The FAPESP research program is funded by one percent of the state’s taxes and, of that, only five percent can be employed for administrative costs. São Paulo’s dedication to research has made it the leading Brazilian state in promoting pure and applied research in Brazil, and perhaps in the world!
Our projected travel time back to Punta Arenas from Puerto Williams is 43 hours. But, before we set out, we have one last stop to make. Ernesto has arranged for us a private tour of the Museo Antropológico Martin Gusinde with the museum’s director, another one of his friends, naturally. I toured the museum once about 10 years ago, but no one else on the trip has visited it before. The museum has a two-fold focus, documenting the culture of the Yaghan people and presenting the history of European exploration in the region. It is a well-maintained museum and quite the tourist attraction despite all the exhibits being presented solely in Spanish. The namesake of the museum, Martin Gusinde, was an Austrian priest who lived for extended periods with the Yahgan and documented their social and spiritual life in the early 1930s through photography and ethnography. It is a surprising little museum with well curated and exhaustive exhibits. I am glad to get the refresher course in both of the museum’s foci.