Science Talk

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

Braving the Andes to Discover and Save Earth’s Plants

Posted in From the Field on April 20, 2018 by Stevenson Swanson

Stevenson Swanson is the Science Media Manager at The New York Botanical Garden.


Michelangeli
Dr. Fabián Michelangeli in Peru’s Yanachanga-Chemillén National Park

In time for Earth Day, a new video shows in vivid detail the daunting conditions that plant scientists at The New York Botanical Garden endure in their effort to understand and conserve the amazing diversity of Earth’s plant life.

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Balancing Conservation and Commerce: NYBG and JetBlue Launch the Caribbean Consortium

Posted in Environment on April 13, 2018 by Stevenson Swanson

Stevenson Swanson is the Science Media Manager at The New York Botanical Garden.


IUCN Red-Listed Species
As shown here, many of Cuba’s endangered plant species are in currently unprotected areas that could be developed. Click for a closer look.

Representatives of The New York Botanical Garden and JetBlue Airways launched their new Caribbean Consortium at a recent meeting at the Botanical Garden’s Pfizer Plant Research Laboratory. The consortium, which was announced in February, will address the linked issues of conservation and commerce across the Caribbean, a vital part of JetBlue’s network and a longtime focus of the Garden’s Plant Research and Conservation program.

With the goal of striking a balance between conservation and commerce, the consortium will bring together a cross-section of key stakeholders from business, academia, and non-governmental organizations, such as the Center for International Policy, a Washington, D.C., foreign policy research and advocacy group, whose Cuban program director, Elizabeth Newhouse, participated in the meeting. Also joining was Robert Muse, a Washington attorney who has worked on Cuban issues since the early 1990s.

“This partnership with JetBlue is going to help translate conservation research into conservation action,” said Brian Boom, Ph.D., the Garden’s Vice President for Conservation Strategy, who has traveled to Cuba regularly since 1988 to conduct research and build relationships with his Cuban counterparts.

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Searching for Schefflera in the Ecuadorian Rain Forest

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on April 5, 2018 by Sarah Hardy

Sarah Hardy is a laboratory technician at the Pfizer Plant Research Laboratory and a former intern at the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium, both at The New York Botanical Garden.


Colberg
Student Eva Colberg presses a specimen at Sumak Kawsay field station.

One of the most pressing challenges in botany today is inspiring and training the next generation of systematists, scientists who discover, name, and classify species. In January, an international partnership sought to address this need through a tropical field botany course held in Ecuador for eight graduate students. The program was designed to engage students first-hand with the exciting (and sometimes trying) nature of field collection that is foundational to systematics.

The course was organized by Gregory M. Plunkett, Ph.D., Director and Curator of the Cullman Program for Molecular Systematics at The New York Botanical Garden; Porter P. Lowry II, Ph.D., and M. Marcela Mora, Ph.D., of the Missouri Botanical Garden; and David A. Neill, Ph.D., of Universidad Estatal Amazónica (UEA) in Ecuador with help from Efrén Merino. Of the eight students, four were from the United States and four from Ecuador. They came together at the UEA field station called Centro de Investigación Posgrado y Conservación Amazónica (CIPCA) to learn the logistics of botanical field work, using the genus Schefflera (in the Araliaceae family) as an example. The students brought with them a variety of backgrounds and interests, including plant-insect interactions, lichenology, and conservation, but were eager to get their feet wet in tropical field botany.

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Plants as Calendars

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on March 13, 2018 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, and Gregory M. Plunkett, Ph.D., is Director and Curator of the Botanical Garden’s Cullman Program for Molecular Systematics.


Melanthera biflora Balick Final
Melanthera biflora, known as intop asiej in Aneityum. When it flowers, local people know that sea turtles are very fat and ready to be hunted.

For most of us, calendars rule our lives. They allow us to organize our days, remind us of future appointments, and importantly, help us to carve out a space when we can take a break from the frenetic pace of life. Increasingly, they are stored on our computers or mobile phones, but this modern tool developed and evolved over a long period of human history.

Before the introduction of the Western calendar, people in Vanuatu reckoned time through their own observations of the natural world. Especially important were certain species of “calendar plants,” whose flowering or fruiting provided an indication of the change of seasons and cues for certain activities, such as gardening, hunting, and fishing. The use of plants as a guide for human activities is of great interest to us. During the past two years, we have been privileged to work with a team of people focused on understanding the diversity, distribution, uses, linguistics and conservation of the Vanuatu flora. Our work on the Tafean islands of Tanna and Aneityum involves collecting plants, mapping plant distributions, and gathering information on the local names of these plants and how people use them.

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Hunting for Hamilton’s Sweetgums

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on February 27, 2018 by Victoria Johnson

Victoria Johnson is an associate professor of Urban Policy and Planning at Hunter College of the City University of New York. Her biography of the botanist and doctor David Hosack—the attending physician at the Hamilton-Burr duel—will be published in June 2018 by Liveright, a division of W. W. Norton & Co. It is titled American Eden: David Hosack, Botany, and Medicine in the Garden of the Early Republic.


Hamilton Grange National Memorial with newly planted American Sweetgum.

Alexander Hamilton considered himself a poor gardener.

In December 1802, he conveyed this fact to a friend in the most pointed way he knew how—via a political dig at President Thomas Jefferson, his longtime rival. Hamilton quipped that horticulture was a pursuit “for which I am as little fitted as Jefferson to guide the helm of the U[nited] States.”

When Hamilton wrote these words, he was facing an entirely novel challenge: laying out the grounds of his new country house in northern Manhattan. The Grange, as he called it, was a boxy yellow mansion on a parcel of about 35 acres he had purchased in 1800. From its piazzas, Alexander and Eliza could catch glimpses of the Hudson, East, and Harlem Rivers.

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NYBG Scientist Receives 2018 David Fairchild Medal

Posted in Personalities in Science on February 16, 2018 by Stevenson Swanson

Stevenson Swanson is the Science Media Manager at The New York Botanical Garden.


Charles R. “Chipper” Wichman, Jr., President, Chief Executive Officer and Director of the National Tropical Botanical Garden, presents the 2018 Fairchild Medal to NYBG’s Dr. Michael J. Balick. Photo by Lynda LaRocca

Honoring a career spanning more than four decades of botanical fieldwork and research around the globe, Michael J. Balick, Ph.D., Vice President for Botanical Science and Director and Philecology Curator of the Institute of Economic Botany at The New York Botanical Garden, has been awarded the 2018 David Fairchild Medal.

The Fairchild Medal, given by the National Tropical Botanical Garden, is the highest honor that can be bestowed upon a scientist who explores remote parts of the world to discover important plants and expand our scientific knowledge and practical understanding of them. It was presented to Dr. Balick recently at a black-tie dinner at The Kampong in Coconut Grove, Florida, the historic garden and former residence of David Fairchild, for whom the award is named.

David Fairchild was one of the greatest botanical explorers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He introduced thousands of important plant species and varieties to America, including soybeans, mangoes, dates, pistachios, nectarines, and avocados.

The National Tropical Botanical Garden, a Hawai‘i-based conservation, research, and educational institution, has given the award annually since 1999.

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New Jersey Lichens Give Up the Ghost

Posted in From the Field on January 22, 2018 by Science Talk

Jessica Allen, Ph.D., is a Post-Doctoral Researcher at the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow, and Landscape Research in Birmensdorf, Switzerland. James Lendemer, Ph.D., is an Assistant Curator in the Institute of Systematic Botany at The New York Botanical Garden. Lichens are their primary research interest.


Lendemer
James Lendemer examining a reindeer lichen transplant

In April 2015, we carefully removed two species of lichens from their original homes at the Rutgers Pinelands Field Station in southern New Jersey, wrapped them in tissue paper, and transported them to the Thain Family Forest at The New York Botanical Garden. Once there, we hung one species, called old man’s beard (Usnea strigosa), in trees, and we nestled the other, known as reindeer lichen (Cladonia subtenuis), on the forest floor. These species used to live in New York City but were extirpated by the early 1900s because of decreasing air quality. Now that air quality is improving in the city, we were curious to test whether or not the species were ready to be brought back.

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Is Restoration a Solution for the Invasive Species Problem?

Posted in Environment on December 15, 2017 by Jessica Arcate Schuler

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


ISS
Invasive plant, Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergii). Photo credit: Esin Ütün

The tone surrounding the term “invasive species” is most frequently negative. That’s understandable, considering that invasive species—exotic species that cause harm to the ecosystem they are occupying—are one of the top three threats to biodiversity worldwide, along with climate change and habitat destruction. On Friday, November 3, 2017, NYBG and the Lower Hudson Partnership for Regional Invasive Species Management (PRISM) co-presented Invasive Species Summit: Restoration and Long-term Management, which brought a positive note of restoration to the invasive species discussion (visit the NYBG YouTube Channel for a recording of the full program).

This all-day program started with Paddy Woodworth, award-winning Irish journalist and author of “Our Once and Future Planet”, who introduced the subject of ecological restoration—the process of assisting in the recovery of an ecosystem that has been degraded, damaged, or destroyed—and showcased the example of Working for Water, a large-scale, South African program that has been managing invasive plants since 1995. As a writer, Paddy brings a unique perspective to the topic, warning that the negative words used with conservation are concerning. Ecological restoration provides a positive perspective and an outlet of tangible action items in which everyone can participate, from their own backyards to following the Society for Ecological Restoration  International Standards in larger-scale restoration projects.

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Top 7: The Best Popular Science Books of 2017

Posted in Books: Past and Present on December 13, 2017 by Esther Jackson

Esther Jackson is the Public Services Librarian at NYBG’s LuEsther T. Mertz Library, where she manages Reference and Circulation services and oversees the Plant Information Office. She spends much of her time assisting researchers, providing instruction related to library resources, and collaborating with NYBG staff on various projects related to Garden initiatives and events.


Growing a RevolutionAs 2017 comes to an end, it’s time to look back on the best popular science books of the year. This list represents my favorites.

Growing a Revolution: Bringing Our Soil Back to Life by David R. Montgomery

$16.95. W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. 

This was far and away one of my favorite books of 2017, and one that I enthusiastically recommended to many others throughout the year. David R. Montgomery challenges the “norm” in industrial farming soil care. With research, interviews, and an engaging style of writing, he invites readers and agriculturists alike to consider the ways in which soil fertility can be improved with better soil care and practices. Montgomery presents a better way to grow more food, save money, and build up soil that has been decimated through traditional industrial farming techniques. For those who live and eat in the United States, Growing a Revolution is a must-read. (Full review here.)

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Tell Me Something I Don’t Know—about Lichens

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on December 7, 2017 by Stevenson Swanson

Stevenson Swanson is the Science Media Manager at The New York Botanical Garden.


Tell Me Something I Don't Know
Dr. James Lendemer (standing) tells host Stephen J. Dubner (seated, center) and co-hosts A. J. Jacobs (left) and Sas Goldberg (right) something they didn’t know about lichens.

Readers with an interest in economics and listeners to public radio know Stephen J. Dubner as one half of the writing team behind the best-selling 2005 economics-for-everyman book Freakonomics and as the host of the program Freakonomics Radio.

A triple threat, Dubner is also the host of a game show podcast, Tell Me Something I Don’t Know, in which a handful of guests with a particular expertise talk to Dubner and his co-hosts about their subject and then the audience votes for its favorite expert. The prize: the satisfaction of winning and a nice commemorative certificate.

In a recent episode, “Farming without Sun or Soil and Manna from Heaven,” NYBG Assistant Curator James Lendemer, Ph.D., talked about his passion—lichens, combinations of a fungus and an alga that play important roles in ecosystems by filtering water and air and by providing habitat and food for wildlife.

As Dr. Lendemer explains, lichens are so sensitive that they are considered an indicator of air quality, but they are also tough enough to survive in outer space.

To listen to the full episode—and it’s worth listening to the end—head here