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

Archive: November 2013

Dutchman’s Breeches: Pantaloons Fit for a Queen

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on November 27, 2013 by Carol Gracie

After spending nearly three decades at the NYBG, and working much of that time in South American rainforests with her husband, Scott A. Mori, Carol Gracie has returned to one of her first botanical interests in retirement–local wildflowers. She is the author of Spring Wildflowers of the Northeast: A Natural History and coauthor (with Steve Clemants) of Wildflowers in the Field and Forest: A Field Guide to the Northeastern United States.

Without aroma, Dutchman’s breeches flowers use contrasting yellow and white colors to attract pollinators, namely early-flying queen bumblebees.
Without aroma, Dutchman’s breeches flowers use contrasting yellow and white colors to attract pollinators, namely early-flying queen bumblebees.

Without aroma, Dutchman’s breeches flowers use contrasting yellow and white colors to attract pollinators, namely early-flying queen bumblebees.

In the early spring wildflower parade, Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) follow closely on the heels of hepatica, blooming by mid-April. Dutchman’s breeches are one of the true spring ephemerals, plants that complete their entire above-ground life cycle within a period of only a few weeks and then disappear until the following spring. Of course, the underground portions live on, storing the carbohydrates manufactured by the leaves during the brief period before the trees have leafed out and shaded the forest floor. But spring ephemerals are not roadside plants.

To see most of our native ephemerals requires a pleasant walk in the woods. Ephemerals are plants that have evolved to live in the primeval conditions of Eastern North America—a land once covered by forest. They must take advantage of the short period of year when temperatures are warm enough and sunlight sufficient enough on the forest floor for the plant to accomplish three tasks: food production, reproduction, and storage of carbohydrates for the subsequent year’s growth.

Read More

Recent Book Traces Evolution of Plant Form

Posted in Books: Past and Present on November 25, 2013 by Barbara Ambrose

Barbara A. Ambrose, Ph.D., is the Cullman Assistant Curator in Plant Genomics at The New York Botanical Garden. Among other things, she is currently researching the genetic basis for the evolution of leaves in certain fern species.

How did plant life evolve on Earth to form hundreds of thousands of species with a vast diversity of shapes and structures? The explosive growth of DNA sequencing and the dramatic expansion of our ability to analyze huge quantities of sequencing data are making it possible to address fundamental questions about plant evolution more authoritatively than ever before.

The Evolution of Plant Form

The Evolution of Plant Form brings together for the first time in a single book the plant scientists who study morphology—the forms and structures of plants, such as leaves and flowers—and molecular geneticists. The classical morphologists know the interesting questions in plant morphology, and the molecular geneticists have the tools to address those questions.

Read More

The Wood Anemone: Lending a Helping Hand After 111 Years

Posted in Nuggets from the Archives on November 22, 2013 by Matthew Pace

Matthew Pace, an expert with the NYBG through 2011, is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in botany at the University of Wisconsin.

Anemone quinquefolia
Anemone quinquefolia

The next time you’re outdoors, take a moment and look around. What plants do you see growing nearby? Have those species always been there? Might there be plants that once grew in that area but are no longer found there? How can we help to protect the plants that we find in a given area? These are questions that many botanists and horticulturalists think about and strive to understand every day. They are central to the issues of conservation and restoration–issues which are also central to the mission of The New York Botanical Garden.

A real-world example of these issues is the case of Anemone quinquefolia and the NYBG. Based on founder Nathaniel Lord Britton’s first list of species originally found on NYBG grounds; field work in the Forest; and herbarium work I had conducted (looking through hundreds of dried plant specimens of species found in the NYC metro-area), I thought Anemone quinquefolia was just one of the 100+ native plant species which have been extirpated since the founding of the Garden (“extirpated” is a word which describes species which were once found in a location, but are no longer found there, a.k.a. local extinction). The last herbarium collections of Anemone quinquefolia were from 1898. Little did I know that I was in for the surprise of the year!

Read More

Legume Legacy: Bringing a World-Renowned Scientist’s Work to a New Generation

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on November 20, 2013 by Jacquelyn Kallunki

Jacquelyn Kallunki, Ph.D., is Associate Director and Curator of the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium. She and Garden colleagues Benjamin Torke, Ph.D., and Melissa Tulig were the principal researchers involved in creating the Barneby Legume Catalogue.

Dr. Rupert C. Barneby
Dr. Rupert C. Barneby

A recently completed online catalogue of plant specimens in the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium highlights the scientific work of a world-renowned expert on the bean and pea family whose long and colorful career was spent largely at The New York Botanical Garden.

A self-taught botanist, Dr. Rupert C. Barneby (1911-2000) spent 57 years at the Botanical Garden, publishing almost 8,000 pages of scientific papers and describing 1,250 plants new to science. Based on his observations and measurements of specimens in the Steere Herbarium, he differentiated species and annotated the specimens with accurate names.

English by birth, Dr. Barneby made regular field trips to the American West and other destinations to collect plants, accompanied by his partner, Dwight Ripley, an American whom he met while attending Harrow, the prestigious English school. In the 1940s and 1950s, he and Ripley were friends and early patrons of Jackson Pollock and other Abstract Expressionist painters, as well as such literary lights as W. H. Auden and Aldous Huxley.

Read More

From the Field: Like Driving on Okra

Posted in From the Field on November 18, 2013 by Matt Newman

Wayt ThomasGetting there is half the fun, unless you’re trekking into remote wilderness. With scientists such as Wayt Thomas, Ph.D., hoofing it into some of the most remote and unforgiving locales on Earth, it’s not surprising that their expeditions occasionally hit snags. Dr. Thomas is the Elizabeth G. Britton Curator of Botany here at the NYBG, and his focus on the flora of northeastern Brazil often takes him to deep, rugged forests where roads are a luxury, if not a pipe dream. But as seen below, the hassles are worth it, especially when species diversity is at risk. Dr. Thomas is working with plants found nowhere else in the world, an effort that has a two-fold benefit.

In the course of documenting these plants in Brazil’s Atlantic coastal forests, he and his team are also determining which species provide food and shelter for endangered and increasingly rare bird species also found in the area. With time, Dr. Thomas and his colleagues hope to uncover the relationships between plant and animal, which will allow scientists not only to track the location of these avian populations more easily but also to recommend specific reforestation plans to support these vanishing birds.

Of course, Dr. Thomas isn’t the only one roughing it in the field. Stay tuned to Science Talk for more adventures involving our globetrotting scientists.

The Redback Salamander’s True Colors

Posted in Nuggets from the Archives on November 15, 2013 by Matt Newman

Redback salamanderNot every research program that takes place in the Thain Family Forest is geared explicitly toward the trees, though the work done there does tend to knit together at the end of the day. Think of it as a domino effect; an influence on one organism can herald a drastic fallout for others in the web of an individual biome. And, in some cases, certain varieties of plants or animals are relied on as indicator species—”canaries in the coal mine” that speak to the overall health of a given area, signifying changes for better or worse that might otherwise be too subtle to recognize. Salamanders, wherever they’re found, are often a flagship example.

In recent years, a handful of studies here have focused on the small salamander species that call our Forest home: the northern two-lined salamander (Eurycea bislineata), a water-reliant species native to the U.S. and Canada, and the terrestrial redback or woodland salamander (Plethodon cinereus), a species that has evolved to live away from water. Considering how delicate these quick, slippery little amphibians are on average, it’s quite the feat to strike off and make a living under rocks and leaf litter. Of course, even a particular resilience among their own kind doesn’t excuse them from the effects of climate, urbanization, and other challenges.

Read More

A Spectacular Tropical Tree

Posted in Location Shots from the Field on November 13, 2013 by Scott Mori

Scott A. Mori is the Nathaniel Lord Britton Curator of Botany at The New York Botanical Garden. An expert on the Brazil nut family of trees, he has also investigated the co-evolution of plants and the insects and animals that pollinate and disperse them.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Among the most spectacular of tropical cultivated trees is the Pride of Burma (Amherstia nobilis), a tree in the legume family that is known from only a few localities in the wilds of Myanmar (formerly Burma) but commonly cultivated in tropical botanical gardens throughout the world.

The tree is stunning because of its long, pendulous clusters of flowers, or inflorescences, and its crimson-colored petals painted bright yellow at their tips. These images were taken at the Botanical Garden in Rio de Janeiro, where I recently presented a week-long course on tropical botany.

Elizabeth Britton: Real-Life Inspiration for a Fictional Heroine

Posted in Books: Past and Present on November 11, 2013 by Sarah Dutton

Sarah Dutton works in the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium, where, among other things, she is working on a project to digitize the Steere Herbarium’s collection of bryophytes, the plant group that Elizabeth Knight Britton studied.

The Signature of All ThingsAlma Whitaker, the heroine of Elizabeth Gilbert’s new novel The Signature of All Things, is a 19th century woman who’s ahead of her time. Her wanderings in the forests around her father’s Philadelphia estate lead to a fascination with the mosses she discovers there, and by becoming one of the world’s leading moss experts, she breaks free of the restrictive roles that confined most women of the period.

It’s not as fanciful as it may sound. Gilbert, the author of the bestselling memoir Eat, Pray, Love, has said in interviews that one of her inspirations for Alma was Elizabeth Gertrude Knight Britton (1857-1934), who was a teacher, curator, and leading American expert on bryophytes, the important plant group that includes mosses.

She was also instrumental in the founding of The New York Botanical Garden. After she and her husband, Nathaniel Lord Britton, visited England’s Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in 1888, the couple proposed that a similar institution be created in New York. She continued to be heavily involved, raising funds for the Botanical Garden and planning gardens and buildings with her husband, who was the Garden’s first Director in Chief.

Read More

Las Orquídeas: Racing the Clock

Posted in Nuggets from the Archives on November 8, 2013 by Matt Newman

Dr. Paola Pedraza

High in the cloud forests of the tropical Andes, picking her way through the misted foliage of Las Orquídeas National Park, NYBG botanist Paola Pedraza, Ph.D. goes about the business of collecting plant specimens. This northwest Colombian landscape is renowned for its biodiversity—it is said to have more examples of plant, animal, and microbial life than almost any other ecosystem on earth. But that’s not necessarily the only reason that Dr. Pedraza, a Colombian native and Associate Curator of our Institute of Systematic Botany, returns here so often. While her work is indeed groundbreaking, her motivations extend well beyond the everyday specimen collections that take place day and night here in South America.

Far from the mere process of cataloging plant life, it is the shrinking timeframe and the aggravating factors surrounding it that make Dr. Pedraza’s undertaking so significant.

Read More

Callaloo: A Nutritious Weed

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on November 6, 2013 by Ina Vandebroek

Dr. Ina Vandebroek is an ethnomedical research specialist at The New York Botanical Garden‘s Institute of Economic Botany. As part of her research, she is studying the use of Jamaican plants for food and medicine.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Callaloo is one of the most popular green leafy vegetables in Jamaica. The young leaves of this (semi-)domesticated species are chopped and steamed with onions, scallions and salt to make the popular dish of the same name. Amaranthus viridis is commonly known as garden callaloo in Jamaica, but other species include Amaranthus dubius (Spanish callaloo) and Amaranthus spinosus.

Read More