Science Talk Archive

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

Moving to Read & Watch

Posted in Events on February 13, 2020 by Matt Newman

Photo of witch-hazel in bloom

Big news! In our ongoing efforts to bring you the best of what’s happening at the Garden, Science Talk and Plant Talk are merging to create Read & Watch, a new media hub on that will bring you all of the most recent videos, stories, and more in an easy-to-use format. 

You’ll still be able to find all of your favorite past posts on these original blog feeds, which we’ll maintain as archives. Since we’ll no longer be posting updates here, however, be sure to head to Read & Watch for our new content going forward!

[Sic]kening Plant Names: Intentional Orthographic Variants

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on January 21, 2020 by Kristine Paulus

Kristine Paulus is the Plant Records Manager at The New York Botanical Garden.

Photo of a plant labelPlant recorders (people who keep records of plants) are frequently assumed to know all the names of every plant. While we may not actually have every plant name committed to memory, we do ensure that plants in the collection are referred to by their proper names. That is to say, the current taxonomically correct and accepted scientific name. So who gets to name plants? There is no authority over the common names—those vernacular nicknames that vary from one geographic region to another. While they can be memorably descriptive, common names can be confusing. Calling an Abutilon a flowering “maple” just doesn’t make sense. Scientific names, however, are the universally accepted names of plants.

The revered manual that dictates exactly how plants can be named is The International Code of Botanical Nomenclature (affectionately known to recorders as simply The Code). Once a plant name is published, that is its name (unless further research leads to reclassification). Numerous authoritative sources compile valid plant names, such as Kew’s Plants of the World Online and the Angiosperm Phylogeny Group, allowing plant recorders to check the names and make sure they are accessioned and labeled correctly.

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Sustainability Update: Greening Site Operations

Posted in Garden News on December 27, 2019 by John McEnrue

John McEnrue is the Vice President for Site Operations and Chief Sustainability Officer at The New York Botanical Garden.

Photo of a water fill station in useEarlier this summer NYBG received the American Public Gardens Association’s Operational Sustainability Award in Washington, D.C., recognizing The New York Botanical Garden as having the premier commitment to sustainable operation relative to its peers throughout the nation.

Across the grounds, NYBG continues to make strides in waste reduction. The most significant was eliminating single-use plastic beverage containers system-wide this summer in both public and staff locations. We were able to do this by either enhancing existing water fountains to include personal bottle filling adapters, installing new bottle filling stations, or replacing the commonly used five-gallon inverted water filling stations with filtered stations that tap into New York City’s internationally renowned clean water supply. Our food vendor, in concert, agreed to no longer sell single use plastic bottled water and, in turn, replaced it with metal refillable water containers.

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Climate Change Action Needed Following Madrid’s COP25

Posted in Environment on December 17, 2019 by Brian Boom

Brian M. Boom, Ph.D., is Vice President for Conservation Strategy at The New York Botanical Garden.

Photo of a forest fire in Rondonia
Smoke rises from fires in September in the rain forest of the Brazilian state of Rondônia, the region of the Brazilian Amazon that was most impacted by rampant burning this year.

At last year’s climate change talks in Poland, a little-known 15-year-old Swedish climate change activist named Greta Thunberg galvanized the talks with a short impassioned speech. At this year’s COP25 climate talks in Madrid, Ms. Thunberg, now known worldwide for her charismatic climate change activism, gave a longer and even more impassioned speech. Further demonstrating the mobilizing power of youth in raising awareness of the climate crisis—which I wrote about here for Science Talk following the Poland talks—she was named TIME Magazine’s 2019 Person of the Year. What a difference a year makes!

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Dispelling a Seasonal Myth: For Humans, 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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