Science Talk

Exploring the science of plants, from the field to the lab

Dispelling a Seasonal Myth: The Poinsettia is Not a Toxic Plant

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on December 12, 2019 by Science Talk

Michael J. Balick, Ph.D., is Vice President for Botanical Science and Director and Philecology Curator of the Institute of Economic Botany at The New York Botanical Garden. Lewis S. Nelson, M.D., is Professor and Chair of the Department of Emergency Medicine and Chief of the Division of Medical Toxicology at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School in Newark, NJ.


Photo of a poinsettiaThe appearance of the poinsettia, Euphorbia pulcherrima, means to many people that the holiday season is upon us. The showy bracts that surround the flowers are most often red but can be many other colors, ranging from pale green and white to orange or pink, as well as mixtures of those colors. But pity the poor poinsettia—there are those who mistakenly believe that the leaves and bracts of this beautiful plant are toxic when ingested.

How did this belief arise? In 1944, the book, Poisonous Plants of Hawaii (H.L. Arnold, Tongg Publishing Company, Honolulu) stated that the “milky juice and the leaves are poisonous.” This assertion was based on a case in which a two-year old child of a U.S. Army officer at Fort Shafter in Honolulu died from eating a poinsettia leaf in 1919. The book furthermore suggested that poinsettia leaves and sap cause “intense emesis and catharsis and delirium before death.”

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One Thousand Plants, One Billion Years of Evolution

Posted in Garden News on December 12, 2019 by Samantha Frangos

Samantha Frangos is a Laboratory Technician at the Pfizer Plant Research Laboratory of The New York Botanical Garden.


Photo of a clubmoss
Dendrolycopodium obscurum, a North American clubmoss

The green plant tree of life is built upon many evolutionary innovations. Plants have come a long way since they began as single-celled organisms one billion years ago. They have transitioned from water to land and managed to become the beautiful, towering, flowering and fruiting beings that are the backbone of life on earth. They have complex life histories—creating vascular systems, waxy cuticles, spores, seeds, and flowers. These innovations define key turning points in the history of green plants, and they are what separate the major plant groups: green algae, mosses and liverworts, ferns, gymnosperms, and flowering plants.

The One Thousand Plant Transcriptomes Initiative, also known as the 1KP initiative, is a global collaboration of nearly 200 plant scientists, including Dennis Wm. Stevenson, Ph.D., NYBG Vice President for Science and Cullman Senior Curator. “This longterm project integrates fieldwork, herbarium research, and living collections with the latest in laboratory and information sciences as an international collaboration,” Dr. Stevenson said. For almost 10 years, this group has been attempting to sequence the genes of one thousand plants, spanning every plant family on the tree of life. The sequencing of these species, 1,124 in total, brings science significantly closer to understanding how the tree of life works in the plant kingdom. By examining the similarities and differences in genes, we can more fully understand how plants created evolutionarily significant transitions. For example: we can use this data to understand how conifers, which disperse their seeds in cones, are related to flowering plants, which disperse their seeds in fruit and only appeared in the fossil record about 200 million years ago.

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Rarest of Them All: New Research Using Data from NYBG and Other Institutions Finds More Than a Third of All Plant Species Are “Exceedingly Rare”

Posted in Environment on December 5, 2019 by Stevenson Swanson

Stevenson Swanson is Associate Director of Public Relations at The New York Botanical Garden.


NYBG scientist Dr. Wayt Thomas collected this Sinningia macrophylla specimen in the Atlantic Coastal Forest of Brazil, home to many rare plant species.

An international team of researchers, including an NYBG scientist, has concluded that more than a third of all plant species are exceedingly rare, making them highly vulnerable to extinction from such threats as habitat destruction and climate change.

In a study published by the online research journal Science Advances, scientists analyzed the largest compilation of global plant observation data ever assembled to determine how many of the roughly 435,000 total plant species should be considered very rare. They found that 36.5 percent, or more than 158,000 species, fall into that category.

Barbara M. Thiers, Ph.D., Vice President and Patricia K. Holmgren Director of the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium at The New York Botanical Garden, joined 34 colleagues at research institutions around the world in this landmark research project.

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Historical Species & Ecosystems Study: LuEsther T. Mertz Library Collections

Posted in Garden News on December 5, 2019 by Garrett Barziloski

Esther Jackson is the Public Services Librarian at NYBG’s LuEsther T. Mertz Library.


Illustrations of mountains.
A work from Humboldt’s De distributione geographica plantarum…

Materials held in the LuEsther T. Mertz Library are extremely important resources for research related to climate change, especially those related to species distribution and rarity, and ecological topics. The study of distribution of species and ecosystems in geographic space and through geological time is known as biogeography, and research related to biogeography—both contemporary and historic is some of the most interesting and impactful work that is done with Mertz Library collections.

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Nurturing Nature’s Resilience: Thain Family Forest Program

Posted in Garden News on November 29, 2019 by Jessica Arcate Schuler

Jessica Arcate Schuler is the Director of the Thain Family Forest at The New York Botanical Garden.


Drone photo of the Thain Family ForestEcological restoration is the driving discipline for the ongoing work in the Thain Family Forest. This newer field of science is defined by the Society for Ecological Restoration (SER) as the process of assisting the recovery of an ecosystem that has been degraded, damaged, or destroyed. Ecosystems around the world are being used unsustainably and in some cases completely destroyed. Because of this, they are no longer providing vital ecosystem services such as food, water, carbon sequestration, pollination, climate regulation, and wildlife habitat. Ecological restoration provides the platform for people to utilize both conservation and sustainable development techniques to restore ecological function and improve conditions for everyone. The SER has developed international standards that guide restoration projects across the globe with an emphasis on educating and engaging local communities. Through the Forest Program, NYBG is a member of SER and also the Ecological Restoration Alliance of Botanic Gardens where our collaborative declaration is to “Connect. Share. Restore.”

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Pressed for Time: Herbaria & Environmental Threats Assessment

Posted in Garden News on November 20, 2019 by Barbara Thiers

Barbara M. Thiers, Ph.D., is the Vice President and Patricia K. Holmgren Director of the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium, and Curator of Bryophytes at The New York Botanical Garden.


Photo of an herbarium specimenHerbarium specimens are one of the very few tangible sources of information about how plants and fungi lived before industrialization, and during each successive period of technological advance since then. Through creative adaptation of technologies developed to address other questions, researchers today can glean information from herbarium specimens about an organism’s physiology, its reproduction, interaction with pollinators, predators and parasites, and the atmosphere around it, for example, the presence of pollutants in the soil and the chemical composition of the air.

Plants have small openings on the undersides of their leaves called stomates that allow Carbon Dioxide (CO2) to enter the leaf for the process of photosynthesis, and allow Oxygen (O2), a byproduct of photosynthesis, to enter to air. A variety of studies have demonstrated that leaves produce fewer of these stomates when CO2 concentrations in the air rise. Examination of stomates on herbarium specimens confirm other evidence that CO2 levels are rising, and help to correlate this rise with other types of climatic and human-mediated events. Assays of plant tissue from herbarium specimens can also help find previously unidentified sources of pollution. Herbarium specimens have been used to track historical levels of radiation and heavy metals to serve as a baseline for pre-pollution conditions, and to assess the reaction of a species to the presence of these compounds. These techniques were used to study long-term effects of known pollutions events, such as the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, or can be used to discover previously unknown contamination events.

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New York State Honors NYBG’s Commitment to Energy Efficiency and Sustainability

Posted in Events on November 15, 2019 by Stevenson Swanson

Stevenson Swanson is the Associate Director of Public Relations at The New York Botanical Garden.


Photo of Dr. Brian Boom receiving his recognition
Brian Boom, Ph.D., NYBG’s Vice President for Conservation Strategy, accepting the Environmental Excellence Award from Martin Brand, Deputy Commissioner of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation

The New York Botanical Garden has received a New York State Environmental Excellence Award for 2019 in recognition of the Botanical Garden’s ongoing commitment to being a leader in the Empire State in reducing energy use and carbon emissions and increasing the sustainability of its operations.

The Garden was one of only four organizations to be honored with the award, which is presented annually by the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) to recognize outstanding efforts to achieve a more sustainable New York. A statewide review committee selected the winners from an array of competitive applications.

“The New York Botanical Garden is honored to be recognized by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation with this award,” said Carrie Rebora Barratt, Ph.D., CEO and The William C. Steere Sr. President of The New York Botanical Garden. “At a time when plants are under threat as never before, NYBG is proud to be a leader in environmental stewardship and sustainable development on our 250-acre campus in the Bronx and in areas of critical conservation concern throughout our region, across the country, and around the world.”

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One Thousand Plant Genomes: Understanding One Billion Years of Evolution

Posted in Applied Science on October 25, 2019 by Samantha Frangos

Samantha Frangos is a Laboratory Technician in the Pfizer Plant Research Laboratory of The New York Botanical Garden.


Mosaic of diverse plant speciesThe green plant tree of life is built upon many evolutionary innovations. Plants have come a long way since they began as single-celled organisms one billion years ago. They have transitioned from water to land and managed to become the beautiful, towering, flowering and fruiting beings that are the backbone of life on earth. They have complex life histories—creating vascular systems, waxy cuticles, spores, seeds and flowers. These innovations define key turning points in the history of green plants, and they are what separate the major plant groups: green algae, mosses and liverworts, ferns, gymnosperms and flowering plants.

The One Thousand Plant Transcriptomes Initiative, also known as the 1KP initiative, is a global collaboration of nearly 200 plant scientists, including NYBG’s Dr. Dennis Stevenson. “This long term project integrates field work, herbarium research, and living collections with the latest in laboratory and information sciences as an international collaboration,” Dr Stevenson said. For almost 10 years, this group has been attempting to sequence the genes of one thousand plants, spanning every plant family on the tree of life. The publication of these sequences, 1,147 in total, brings science significantly closer to understanding how the tree of life works in the plant kingdom. By examining the similarities and differences in genes, we can more fully understand how plants created evolutionarily significant transitions. For example: we can use this data to understand how conifers, which disperse their seeds in cones, are related to flowering plants, which disperse their seeds in fruit and only appeared in the fossil record about 200 million years ago.

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Celebrate Archives Month with Alexander P. Anderson’s “Eighth Wonder of the World”

Posted in Applied Science on October 21, 2019 by Stephen Sinon

Stephen Sinon is the William B. O’Connor Curator of Special Collections, Research and Archives, in the LuEsther T. Mertz Library of The New York Botanical Garden.


Photo of a Puffed Rice AdvertisementDr. Alexander P. Anderson (1862–1943) was a plant physiologist and the inventor of the process for making puffed cereals. His interest in starch grains began as an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota studying agriculture. Encouraged by his instructors, Anderson earned a master’s degree in plant physiology in 1895. He then traveled to Munich, Germany to study with leading botanists, earning his doctorate degree in plant physiology in 1897. After completing his studies, Anderson accepted a teaching and research position at Clemson Agricultural College (Clemson University today) where he taught from 1897 to 1901.

Anderson came to work at the NYBG Laboratories in 1901 through the encouragement of Dr. Daniel Trembly MacDougal, who was at the time Director of Laboratories at NYBG. When offered a position as Curator of the Herbarium of Columbia University with the use of the Laboratories at The New York Botanical Garden, he resigned his teaching position in South Carolina and moved to New York. His work on starch granules continued at the laboratories at NYBG.

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Dr. Douglas Daly on the Ground in Rondônia, Brazil: Day 3

Posted in From the Field on September 27, 2019 by Matt Newman

The Amazon Rain Forest still holds many mysteries for botanists. Dr. Douglas Daly and his Brazilian collaborators are in the Jacundá National Forest of Brazil’s Rondônia state to collect plant specimens and investigate the extent of damage from recent fires. Today’s efforts uncovered a species of tree that Dr. Daly and his team had never seen before, and could even be new to science. Follow along with Dr. Daly’s ongoing expedition here.