Inside The New York Botanical Garden

Scott Mori

Leopold’s Land Ethic

Posted in Science on April 11 2013, by Scott Mori

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.


A Sand County AlmanacAs 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.”

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An Angel of an Artist

Posted in People on April 4 2013, by Scott Mori

Scott A. Mori is the Nathaniel Lord Britton Curator of Botany at 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.


Botanical artist Bobbi Angell sketching plants in French Guiana.
Botanical artist Bobbi Angell sketching plants in French Guiana.

A month ago, I blogged about the use of fine art by botanists to illustrate the plants and habitats they study. That blog was based on the work of Michael Rothman, who has prepared 20 paintings to illustrate the research of the Curators of the Institute of Systematic Botany at the NYBG.

Today, I discuss the importance of botanical line drawings in illustrating the diagnostic characteristics of plants. The value lies in the fact that they either represent species new to science, or the illustration makes it easier for users of scientific and popular publications to determine the names of plants they have an interest in. Fortunately, soon after my return from a two-year stay in Bahia, Brazil in 1980, I was introduced to Bobbi Angell; after seeing samples of her drawings, I asked her to illustrate species of the Brazil nut family (Lecythidaceae) for a monograph that Ghillean T. Prance–then Vice President for Science at the NYBG–was preparing with me.

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Amazon Biodiversity

Posted in Science on March 21 2013, by Scott Mori

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.


A backwater of the Rio Negro in Amazonian Brazil.
A backwater of the Rio Negro in Amazonian Brazil.

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!

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A Botanist is Never Bored!

Posted in Learning Experiences on March 14 2013, by Scott Mori

Scott A. Mori, Ph.D., Nathaniel Lord Britton Curator of Botany has been studying New World rain forests for The New York Botanical Garden for nearly 35 years. He has witnessed an unrelenting reduction in the extent of the forests he studies and, as a result, is dedicated to preserving the diversity of plants and animals found there.


The wilted flowers of the four o'clock plant at 11 a.m.
The wilted flowers of the four o’clock plant at 11 a.m.

At the time of this writing, I am in São Paulo Brazil to attend a multinational meeting of scientists, each participating in a study of the plants and animals of the Amazon Basin. I arrived the day before the meeting, and had time to walk through the area around the hotel, exploring for weeds and cultivated plants. No matter where I travel, even in the largest cities, there are plants to enjoy. When I spot one I know, it is like running into an old friend and trying to remember his or her name.

First, I try to identify the family the plant belongs to, followed by the genus, and finally the species. After recalling its name, I study the plant to find out if there is something about it I have not seen before. The secret to discovering new information about a plant is to study it carefully through a hand lens–I prefer one that magnifies the flower, fruit, and seed parts by up to ten times their normal size. Finding a plant that I do not know provides an even more exciting encounter, but that will be left for another post.

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A Climb Into Paradise

Posted in From the Field on March 8 2013, by Scott Mori

Scott A. Mori has been studying New World rain forests for The New York Botanical Garden for over 35 years. He has witnessed an unrelenting reduction in the extent of the tropical forests he studies and as a result is dedicated to teaching others about this species rich ecosystem. His most recent book is Tropical Plant Collecting: From the Field to the Internet.


The author climbing a small tree with French climbing spikes.
The author climbing a small tree with French climbing spikes.

One of the most beautiful arboreal observations I have made during my long career occurred during an ascent into a large tree, one that happened to be adjacent to a legume tree scientifically named Hymenaea courbaril–more commonly known as the stinky toe tree. It was given this repugnant name because of the similarity of its fruits to a malodorous human toe. While botanical literature had already reported at the time that this species relied on bats for pollination, I wanted to confirm this observation by climbing a nearby tree from which I could see into the canopy as night fell, just as nocturnal animals started to make their appearances.

I was especially eager to make this climb because one of my research focuses has been the interactions between bats and the plants pollinated and dispersed by them. This was a rare opportunity to observe the crown of this 115-foot-tall tree in full flower, and as my job was to document the species that occur in the lowland forests of central French Guiana, as well as to discover the interactions that the local plants have with animals, I could not pass it up.

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The Sapucaia Tree

Posted in Science on February 28 2013, by Scott Mori

Scott A. Mori, Ph.D., Nathaniel Lord Britton Curator of Botany has been studying New World rain forests for The New York Botanical Garden for nearly 35 years. He has witnessed an unrelenting reduction in the extent of the forests he studies and, as a result, is dedicated to preserving the diversity of plants and animals found there.


Female carpenter bees visiting flowers of the sapucaia tree. Painting by M. Rothman.
Female carpenter bees visiting flowers of the sapucaia tree. Painting by M. Rothman.

Several posts ago, I introduced the cannon ball tree and nominated it as the most interesting tree on earth. I then challenged others to nominate additional plants for this honor, receiving suggestions such as the wiliwili tree, a species of legume in the genus Erythrina; and the sapodilla, a species so important and interesting that it is the common name for the Sapotaceae or chicle family. In fact, there are so many fascinating trees to examine that I have decided to tackle yet another unique specimen studied during my career.

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Illustrating the Botanical World

Posted in Science on February 21 2013, by Scott Mori

Scott A. Mori has been studying New World rain forests for nearly 40 years. He has witnessed an unrelenting reduction in the extent of the forests he studies and, as a result, has become concerned about their future.


From December of 1995 onward, the Institute of Systematic Botany at the NYBG has periodically worked with Michael Rothman to prepare paintings representing the research of our curators. Over the next year, the curators and the paintings that represent their work will be presented in a series of essays on Plant Talk. Today, I introduce the artist and discuss his painting of the understory of a lowland rain forest in French Guiana. I chose this painting to start with because it illustrates the rich biodiversity of lowland tropical rain forest, an area where I have studied plants for many years. If you wish to see rain forest or cloud forest throughout the year without traveling, you can enjoy tropical plants and get out of the cold at the same time by visiting the Garden’s Tropical Paradise exhibition in the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory.

Rothman painting
“A Terrestrial View of a Rain Forest in Central French Guiana” by Michael Rothman.

Botanical art and the study of plants are inseparable. In the course of my career, I have relied on Bobbi Angell for the preparation of the line art accompanying my species descriptions of the Brazil nut family, as well as those depicted in the Guide to the Vascular Plants of Central French Guiana, and the Flowering Plants of the Neotropics. In all, Bobbi has prepared a total of 600 illustrations for me.

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Tropical Insects Don’t Like Snow!

Posted in Science on February 14 2013, by Scott Mori

Scott A. Mori, Ph.D., Nathaniel Lord Britton Curator of Botany has been studying New World rain forests for The New York Botanical Garden for nearly 35 years. He has witnessed an unrelenting reduction in the extent of the forests he studies and, as a result, is dedicated to preserving the diversity of plants and animals found there.


Tree down, October 2011
Snow in South Salem, New York in October 2011.

“So what,” you must be saying to yourself. In spite of how obvious the title is, the lack of cold weather in the tropics contributes both directly and indirectly to tropical biodiversity, the topic of this blog.

One of the many reasons that there are high numbers of species represented by low numbers of individuals in old growth tropical forests–compared to the opposite situation in temperate forests–is because of the greater number of plant/animal interactions in the former. In one of our 2.5 acre tree study plots in central Amazonian Brazil, we registered 285 species of trees with diameters at or above four inches at breast height. Because our plots average 600 trees above this size class per plot, almost every second tree we sampled represented a different species. In contrast, there are fewer than 100 species of trees of all size classes in the entire state of Wisconsin, where I grew up.

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For the Love of Chocolate

Posted in Gardens and Collections on February 6 2013, by Scott Mori

Scott A. Mori, Ph.D., Nathaniel Lord Britton Curator of Botany, has been studying New World rain forests at The New York Botanical Garden for 35 years. From 1978 to 1980 he took a leave from the Garden to serve as the Director of the Herbarium of the Cocoa Research Center in Bahia, Brazil.


Cacao pods
A close-up of pods of a chocolate tree. The fruits can also be red at maturity.

On a previous blog, I covered the natural history of chocolate but failed to admit my addiction to this melt-in-your-mouth delight. This problem of mine has reached the point where I have asked my wife to hide it from me, and then only dole out small portions on special occasions. Nevertheless, I still scheme to get more chocolate from her. But she has become familiar with my tactics as the years have passed, making extra rations almost impossible to get my hands on.

Of course, chocolate doesn’t begin as the confection we know and love. The fruits of the cacao tree produce two edible treats for humans–the first is the pulp that surrounds the seed and the second is the bitter seed that, after processing, becomes the source of our favorite chocolate. Although the pulp can be made into a delicious juice, I usually open the pods and suck the pulp from the seeds to quench my thirst and boost my energy when I am collecting plants in the field. The pulp is the reward given to monkeys and other animals in exchange for disseminating the seeds, carrying them from the mother tree to a place where they have a better chance to germinate and escape predation. On the other hand, animals do not eat the seeds because they are too bitter.

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The Cannon Ball Tree

Posted in Science on January 31 2013, by Scott Mori

Scott A. Mori has been studying New World rain forests for The New York Botanical Garden for over 35 years. He has witnessed an unrelenting reduction in the extent of the tropical forests he studies and as a result is dedicated to teaching others about this species rich ecosystem.


A tangle of flowers arising from the trunk of a cannon ball tree in Grenada. (Photo by Scott A. Mori)

A tangle of flowers arising from the trunk of a cannon ball tree in Grenada. (Photo by Scott A. Mori)
Picture 1 of 2

I still stand in awe each time I see the cannon ball tree (Couroupita guianensis), a member of the Brazil nut family. In fact, it is such an astonishing plant that I am nominating it as the most interesting tree on Earth (disclaimer: I am a specialist in the Brazil nut family and my nomination may be biased). After you read this essay, I would like to know if you agree with me—if not, I challenge you to nominate a tree, tropical or temperate and from any part of the world, that you feel is more interesting than this marvel of nature.

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