Science Talk

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

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.

Read More

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.

Read More

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.

Read More

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.

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.

Read More

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.

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.

Read More

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.)

Read More

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

“Message Plants” in the Communications Age

Posted in From the Field on November 22, 2017 by Science Talk

Gregory M. Plunkett, Ph.D., is Director and Curator of the Cullman Program for Molecular Systematics at The New York Botanical Garden 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.

The team learns about plant uses
The team learns about plant uses.

The people of Vanuatu, an island group in the South Pacific Ocean, have a rich cultural history and intense desire to maintain these cultural practices as living traditions, enshrined in the concept of kastom. However, preserving kastom can be a great challenge in a rapidly changing and globalizing world. We initiated a biocultural conservation program in Vanuatu’s southernmost islands, the area known as Tafea Province, aimed at understanding the area’s plant and fungal biodiversity and its local uses, both traditional and modern. This initiative is helping to conserve biodiversity resources and support cultural practices in this remote part of the world.

To begin the project, we held extensive meetings with community members to gauge their interest in participating in the documentation of plants and plant uses. In many areas, we saw signs of rapid erosion of such knowledge, where grandparents knew the traditional information, but their children and even more so their grandchildren had experienced a growing alienation from the natural world, especially as they became more dependent on modern approaches to life.

Read More

Reinaldo Aguilar, A Friend of the Plants of Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on November 13, 2017 by Scott Mori

Scott A. Mori, Ph.D., is a Curator Emeritus at The New York Botanical Garden. He is a specialist in the Brazil nut family.

Reinaldo Aguilar (left) being recognized by Costa Rican President Luis Guillermo Solís for his inventory of the plants of the Osa Peninsula. Photo by Juan J. Jimenez.

In August, renowned botanist Reinaldo Aguilar was honored for his ongoing inventory of the plants of the Osa Peninsula, which juts into the Pacific Ocean in southwestern Costa Rica near the Panama
border. In a ceremony at Corcovado National Park on the peninsula, Costa Rican President Luis Guillermo Solís presented Reinaldo with an award and pointed out how important botanical inventories are for selecting and managing biological preserves on the Osa, a region of high biodiversity.

Reinaldo began documenting plant diversity on the Osa in 1991 and continues to explore for new and interesting plants. Since 2008, Reinaldo has been collaborating with the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium of The New York Botanical Garden and is the lead author of the Vascular Plants of the Osa Peninsula.

Read More

Bridging the Gap

Posted in Videos and Lectures on November 6, 2017 by Stevenson Swanson

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

Photo in the ConservatoryThe Cigna Foundation and the Ghetto Film School recently teamed up to host a competition among the school’s young filmmakers, who were challenged to use their video storytelling skills to highlight how some of the Foundation’s New York City-based World of Difference non-profit grant partners, including The New York Botanical Garden, are creating a positive impact on the health and well-being of local residents.

Taking second place was Bridging the Gap, by Kecia Romiel, who focused on the Botanical Garden’s innovative research led by Ina Vandebroek, Ph.D., Matthew Calbraith Perry Assistant Curator of Economic Botany and Caribbean Program Director in the Garden’s Institute of Economic Botany. Dr. Vandebroek’s project seeks to improve health care for New York’s immigrant Latino and Caribbean communities by studying the plants they use in their traditional medical practices and raising awareness of these practices among healthcare professionals.

You can watch Kecia’s short video here.