Science Talk

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

Traditional Shelters, Cyclone Houses, and the Temptations of Modern Construction

Posted in From the Field on September 18, 2018 by Science Talk

Gregory M. Plunkett, Ph.D., is Director and Curator of The New York Botanical Garden’s Cullman Program for Molecular Systematics, and Michael J. Balick, Ph.D., is Vice President for Botanical Science and Director and Philecology Curator of the Botanical Garden’s Institute of Economic Botany.


Marie Ken Matai and Kating Ken Matai demonstrate the elements of traditional roof design (Nusemetu, North Tanna).

In Port-Vila and Luganville—Vanuatu’s two largest cities—most people live in buildings that are made in much the same way as those found in New York, Paris, or Sydney. But across most of Vanuatu, the great majority of people still live in small villages, and it is in these areas that we see the wisdom of traditional approaches to building houses. The advantages of these techniques—and the potential lessons for other areas that suffer increasingly from severe tropical weather—may be especially timely in light of Hurricane Florence, which has buffeted North and South Carolina with high winds and heavy rains.

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Indian Pipes: The Parasitic Plants in Bloom at The New York Botanical Garden

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on September 4, 2018 by Science Talk

Ashley Keesling is a graduate student at The Ohio State University who recently conducted a research visit to The New York Botanical Garden.


Indian pipes at Clear Creek Metro Park in Hocking County, Ohio
Indian pipes at Clear Creek Metro Park in Hocking County, Ohio

Intriguing and ethereal, Indian pipes (Monotropa uniflora) are often mistaken for fungi because of their pale, otherworldly appearance. Also known as ghost plants, they typically occur in well-established forests and are often thought of as indicators of healthy ecosystems—not the kind of plant you might think would grow in a dense urban area. However, pockets of preserved forests in New York City, such as the old-growth Thain Family Forest at The New York Botanical Garden, can allow species to flourish in unexpected places.

I came to the heart of the Bronx recently to hunt for Indian pipes in the Thain Forest as part of the research I am conducting for my master’s thesis at The Ohio State University.

These fascinating parasitic plants have been the subject of much interest over the years, including research by an early 20th Century NYBG scientist. Indian pipes are unusual in that they do not photosynthesize. Instead, they are mycoheterotrophic, meaning they obtain nutrients by parasitizing a type of fungi that associate with plant roots. These mycorrhizal fungi help the plants take up water and nutrients that might otherwise be inaccessible to the plants. In exchange, the plants provide the fungi with sugars created from the process of photosynthesis. Indian pipes take advantage of the relationship between another plant and its associated fungus and “steal” sugars from the fungus. This three-part symbiosis allows Indian pipes to ultimately get their nutrients from a photosynthetic plant through the means of a mycorrhizal fungi.

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A New NYBG Report Provides the First Authoritative Assessment of NYC’s Plant Life

Posted in Events on August 14, 2018 by Stevenson Swanson

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


BronxAs part of The New York Botanical Garden’s ongoing project to document all of the plant life of New York City, the Botanical Garden’s Center for Conservation Strategy recently issued a new report, State of New York City’s Plants 2018, the first in what is envisioned as an annual overview of the status of the city’s spontaneous plant species—that is, native plants and non-native plants that have become established in the five boroughs.

The report, which was released at NYBG’s First Annual EcoFlora Conference, found that 2,029 plant species have been reported in New York City from 1807 to 2018. The most species-rich families are the grasses, daisies, and sedges.

At the other end of the spectrum are rare and endangered plants. The International Union for Conservation of Nature, which tracks threatened and endangered plant and animal species, ranks six New York City plant species as critically endangered worldwide, including four species of ash trees, the American chestnut tree, and Bayard’s Adder’s-Mouth orchid. Adding in New York City species that are considered rare, threatened, endangered or extinct by the U. S. government and New York State, some 13 percent of the city’s flora is imperiled or has gone extinct.

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Summer Science: NYBG’s Cullman Interns

Posted in Personalities in Science on July 31, 2018 by Stevenson Swanson

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


Cullman Intern Lunch

One of the highlights of summer at The New York Botanical Garden is the annual Cullman Intern Lunch, celebrating the diligent efforts and bright potential of the high school, college, and graduate students who work with Botanical Garden scientists studying the DNA and genomes of plants to understand their evolution and development.

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NYBG Scientist and Co-Author Receive the Society of Economic Botany’s 2018 Klinger Book Award

Posted in Book on July 3, 2018 by Science Talk

Messages from the GodsMessages from the Gods: A Guide to the Useful Plants of Belize, by NYBG’s Michael Balick, Ph.D., and Rosita Arvigo, D.N., is the winner of the 2018 Mary W. Klinger Book Award, which is given annually to an outstanding book in the fields of economic botany and ethnobotany.

The culmination of a research project that began in 1987, Messages from the Gods is both a cultural study and a specialized field guide, with information about native and introduced plants in Belize and their traditional and contemporary uses as sources of food, medicine, and fiber and in spiritual practices, among many other purposes. The Society of Economic Botany—the preeminent professional association of researchers who study the relationships among plants, people, and culture, which presents the annual Klinger award—recognized the book as a definitive resource with a breadth and depth of knowledge “that will serve as a primary source on the plants of Belize and their uses for many generations.”

“This book is a truly significant volume that culminates decades of close collaboration between the two authors and local experts in Belize who practice and teach plant-based medicine and crafts and who promote the conservation and appreciation of that country’s diverse array of plant species, ecosystems, and human communities,” said Gayle Fritz, Ph.D., the President of the Society for the last year.

Messages from the Gods was co-published by The New York Botanical Garden and Oxford University Press.

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An NYBG Internship Experience: Connecting the Dots to Understand Relationships between Living and Extinct Cycads

Posted in Applied Science on May 15, 2018 by Cynthia Huyck

Cynthia Huyck is a former intern at NYBG’s Pfizer Plant Research Laboratory. She is completing her undergraduate degree at Sarah Lawrence College, concentrating in botany and Japanese.


Cycad
In this image of a stained cross-section of a Cycas media ovule, the vascular bundles in the center are starting to divide into three separate bundles as opposed to two.

Editor’s Note: As the end of the academic year approaches, The New York Botanical Garden’s Plant Science and Conservation program will soon welcome a new class of summer interns. As described in this post, these internships offer valuable experience by allowing students to work closely with NYBG scientists on cutting-edge research.

I spent last summer and fall as an intern working with Vice President and Cullman Curator Dennis Stevenson, Ph.D., on the Gymnosperm Seed Evolution Project at The New York Botanical Garden. The goal of this project is to better understand the relationships among different gymnosperms based on their seeds and seed-bearing organs. My work focused on the anatomy of early phases of ovule development, with an emphasis on branching of the vascular bundles, which contain the specialized cells that transport water and nutrients throughout the plant. I used an anatomical approach because my work involved comparing extant and extinct cycads. Although we cannot extract DNA from the fossils, we can look for structural features in both the fossils and extant species in order to place our fossils on a phylogeny (evolutionary tree) and establish a minimum age for cycads.

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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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