The quiet corridors of the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium here at The New York Botanical Garden are lined with steel cabinets where preserved plant specimens are stored for scientific study, but they are also a treasure trove of history, filled with stories waiting to be told.
One of those stories came to light recently when I set out to determine whether any traces remained in the Steere Herbarium of a significant but little-known research project that involved one of America’s most famous inventors—Thomas Alva Edison.
In the late 1920s, Edison was on a quest for plants that could be grown locally, quickly, and economically to produce latex and provide America with a domestic source of rubber. At the time, the country was dependent on imported rubber for such important products as automobile tires, and Edison and his friends Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone were concerned that an international crisis such as a war could cut off that supply. In 1927, they formed the Edison Botanic Research Corporation in Fort Myers, Florida, and Edison enlisted crews to collect plant specimens throughout the United States, particularly in the South.
Edison’s quest brought him to the Botanical Garden to conduct botanical research in collaboration with the Garden’s Head Curator, John Kunkel Small. At one point the inventor who perfected the light bulb even had a small laboratory in the grand Beaux-Arts building that now houses The LuEsther T. Mertz Library. Tests concluded that the goldenrod (in the plant genus Solidago) contained the most promising amount of latex.
Shannon Asencio, who works at the Botanical Garden’s William and Lynda Steere Herbarium, is the Project Coordinator for the Macrofungi Collection Consortium. This Garden-led project, involving institutions across the country, will result in a publicly accessible database and digitized images of several hundred thousand specimens of mushrooms and related fungi.
When I heard that Professor Sir Peter Crane was going to be giving a talk about the ginkgo tree, I jumped at the opportunity to attend. A noted botanist and conservationist, Professor Crane recently delivered an impassioned speech about this fascinating and, in many respects, enigmatic plant, which is the subject of his new book, Ginkgo: The Tree That Time Forgot.
He described his book as a scientific and cultural history that was inspired by the ginkgo at London’s Kew Gardens, which was planted in 1760. He told the audience at Sotheby’s auction house in Manhattan that he used to stop and admire the tree frequently when he was the director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Professor Crane, whose work includes studies of plant fossils, conservation, and human uses of plants, is currently the Dean and Professor of Botany at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, and he is also a Distinguished Counsellor to the Board of The New York Botanical Garden.
You’ll find them clinging to rock faces like flecks of gray paint, or carpeting a tree trunk with skeins of red whisps. Lichens come in myriad shapes, sizes, colors, and consistencies. But while they’re often overlooked during your average hike, they’re worth giving a spare glance the next time you’re outdoors–lichens play an important part in the ecosystem. Few know this so well as the NYBG‘s Dr. James Lendemer. Like many of the Garden’s globetrotting scientists–Michael Balick, Bill Buck, and Roy Halling, to name a few–Lendemer’s field odysseys carry him well beyond the laboratory door in his hunt for specimens. In recent years, that chalks up to long days spent trekking through the Great Smoky Mountains of the eastern United States.
For the uninitiated, lichens are cryptogams–fungi that reproduce by spores, as with other fungi and some groups of plants. But unlike either, lichens are unique in that they’re composite organisms, often a symbiotic combination of fungi and algae. Think of them as codependent roommates; the former acts as a sort of bodyguard for the latter in exchange for nourishing sugars from the algae’s photosynthesis. At large, lichens make the perfect bird nests by some avian standards, and the growths also have a penchant for breaking down dead trees and rocks while providing nitrogen for soil. Unassuming as they are, they’re integral to maintaining healthy biomes.
Robbin Moran is the NYBG‘s Mary Flagler Cary Curator of Botany, with a specialty in ferns. His field work takes him primarily to the American tropics, especially Central America and the Andes Mountains. Among his many publications is the general-interest book “A Natural History of Ferns” (Timber Press).
A wonderful aspect of botanical research is observing the amazing structures produced by plants. An example in my research is fern spores. These are single cells released by the millions from the undersides of fern leaves. They are picked up by air currents and carried away from the parent plant, thus dispersing the species. They function like seeds, but, unlike seeds, they are single-celled and lack an embryo and seed coat, both of which are multi-cellular structures.
As part of my research, I study fern spores with the Garden’s scanning electron microscope, or “SEM” for short. To the naked eye, spores appear as dust. Most are 30–50 micrometers long, a micrometer being one one-thousandth of a millimeter. By comparison, the average width of a human hair is about 70 micrometers. For reference, the white bar in each photo here equals 10 micrometers. Because the spores are so small, the SEM’s high magnification and resolution are exactly what is needed to reveal their surface details, which are often exquisite and valuable in scientific classification. These details are often so distinct that they distinguish different families, genera, or even closely related species.
Benjamin M. Torke is an Assistant Curator at the Garden’s Institute of Systematic Botany. His specialty is legumes, a large plant family that includes not only beans and peanuts but also hundreds of rainforest tree species.
As an avid history buff, I get excited when my research on neotropical legumes turns up unexpected historical connections. In one recent example, the discovery of a new species of tree shed light on a mostly forgotten episode in the 19th-century international struggle to control shipping commerce.
From 1857 to 1860, Arthur Carl Victor Schott—a topographical engineer, cartographer, naturalist, and artist—was part of a U.S. Army-sponsored expedition to survey a route for a transoceanic canal from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans, one that passed through nearly impenetrable tropical rainforests in the Darien region of northwestern Colombia. The expedition was destined to become a historical footnote—an alternative route through what is now Panama was ultimately chosen for the now-famous canal—but a small collection of dried plant specimens that Schott gathered during the expedition have ongoing importance.