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

Archive: December 2013

Flashes in the Twilight

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on December 30, 2013 by Lisa Vargues

Lisa Vargues is a Curatorial Assistant at The New York Botanical Garden’s William and Lynda Steere Herbarium. Her work includes digitizing plant specimens for the C. V. Starr Virtual Herbarium, with a focus on the West Indies, the Amazon Basin, and historical specimens from the United States, Canada, and Mexico.

Lisa Stina (Photo by Tommy Westberg)
Lisa Stina (Photo by Tommy Westberg)

One evening as twilight settled over the garden of Hammarby, an idyllic farm near Uppsala in Sweden, a botanically inclined young lady noticed flashes of light emanating from her family’s nasturtium flowers (Tropaeolum majus, commonly known as Indian cress, or indiankrasse in Swedish). Intrigued by this phenomenon, she wrote a paper about it, which was published by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in 1762, when she was 19. Her name was Elisabeth Christina von Linné, and she was a daughter of the preeminent scientist Carl Linnaeus (also known as Carl von Linné), who devised the system for naming species that scientists use to this day.

As a woman, Lisa Stina (as she was known) was not permitted to have formal schooling, but she developed a great interest in botany, which her father supported. The mystery of the “flashing flowers” came to be known as the “Elizabeth Linnaeus Phenomenon,” which some believed to be caused by phosphorescence or electricity. Professor F. A. W. Thomas of Germany, however, explained in a 1914 paper that the phenomenon is optical, a result of the way our eyes perceive the flowers’ colors in the twilight.

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Testing the Waters

Posted in Nuggets from the Archives on December 27, 2013 by Matt Newman

A recent graduate from Pelham Memorial High School, Owen Robinson worked as a volunteer Forest Intern at the NYBG in the summer of 2012. He has since begun as a freshman at the University of Virginia, where he hopes to continue his pursuit of science research as a part of the Echols Scholar Program.

Norway maple leaf pack
Norway maple leaf pack

In the summer of 2012 I conducted a project to determine whether or not invasive trees are negatively impacting aquatic macroinvertebrate populations. Aquatic macroinvertebrates are small, invertebrate insects that play essential roles in their ecosystems, acting as an energy bridge between outside plant life and the rest of their aquatic environment. They do this by breaking down tree leaves.

Invasive trees are an established and worsening problem in our region, one that impacts plant biodiversity as well as some mammalian and avian populations. As little research has been dedicated to my particular focus, I wanted to determine whether the leaves from these invasive trees were less beneficial to aquatic macroinvertebrate populations than the leaves of native trees. If this proved the case, there would be reason to work harder against the takeover of invasive plant species.

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Caesius The Day: A Colorful New Australian Mushroom

Posted in New Plant Discoveries on December 26, 2013 by Roy Halling

Roy Halling, Ph.D., is Curator of Mycology in The New York Botanical Garden‘s Institute of Systematic Botany. Among his primary research interests is the bolete (or porcini) family of mushrooms, especially those found in Southeast Asia and Australia.

"Greenish Naked Foot"

Thirty years ago, I published a book, based on my Ph.D. thesis, describing collybioid mushrooms as they occur in the northeastern United States. These mushrooms, which have no real culinary value, are ecologically important because they decompose leaves and other plant litter in natural habitats. One of the common species in the northeast is called Gymnopus subnudus.

While exploring for bolete mushrooms (porcini family) on the Atherton Tableland in Queensland, Australia, I’ve often encountered over the last 20 years this unnamed collybioid mushroom with bluish green pigments. Even the cells at the edge of the gills are filled with the pigment.

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Bearing Gifts from Afar: Two Overlooked Christmas Plants

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on December 23, 2013 by Amy Weiss

Amy Weiss is a curatorial assistant in The New York Botanical Garden’s William and Lynda Steere Herbarium, where she catalogues and preserves plant specimens from around the world.

Myrrh (Commiphora myrrha)
Myrrh (Commiphora myrrha)

Christmas is associated with so many different plants that it’s hard to imagine the holiday without them. There’s mistletoe (traditionally Viscum album), holly (Ilex species, usually I. aquifolium), poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima) and, of course, the Christmas tree (species of Abies, Picea, or Pinus). But most people probably don’t realize that one of the central moments in the story of Christmas features plant products. They’re frankincense and myrrh, which along with gold were brought as gifts by the three kings (or wise men, or magi).

In our collection in the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium, we have samples of both frankincense and myrrh, which were used throughout history as perfume, incense, and medicine and were considered precious gifts. Both are gum resins collected from small trees in the family Burseraceae, also known as the torchwood family because the wood and resin burn so well. The periderm (outer bark) of the trees is peeled back or cut, and the resin flows to the wounded surface, where it dries and is scraped off.

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A Piece of Botanical History Given a New Life

Posted in Nuggets from the Archives on December 20, 2013 by Lansing Moore

Jurica's Posters

Visitors to the Adult Education classrooms on Garden grounds may have noticed a recent addition to the walls of the Watson Building in a series of framed, vintage botanical posters. These treasures were discovered in storage while refurbishing the botany lab, and we could not bear to dispose of such a colorful glimpse into the history of botanical science. While the paper had begun to yellow, the ink was flaking, and a few of the posters were beyond saving, Center Art Studio in Manhattan graciously took on the challenge of restoring ten of these double-sided instructional posters as a gift to the NYBG.

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Journey to Brazil: Finding Only One Where Once There Were Many

Posted in Travelogue on December 18, 2013 by Scott Mori

Scott A. Mori, Ph.D., is the Nathaniel Lord Britton Curator of Botany at The New York Botanical Garden. Nate Smith is an Honorary Research Associate at the Botanical Garden, and Fernando Matos is a Ph.D. student of the Garden’s Institute of Systematic Botany. Michel Ribeiro is a student at the Universidade Federal de Espírito Santo, Brazil, and Anderson Alves-Araújo serves as one of his advisers. This is the last in a three-part series documenting Dr. Mori’s recent trip to Brazil.

A large forest tree standing alone amidst a sea of coffee plants.
A large forest tree (Manilkara bella) standing alone amidst a sea of coffee plants.

As I wrote in my last post, my colleagues and I recently searched for species of the Brazil nut family in the fragmented Atlantic coastal forests of the Brazilian state of Espírito Santo.  There are only 12 species of this family (whose scientific name is Lecythidaceae) in the entire state, but some of the species in northern Espírito Santo are endemic, meaning they are found only there. The goal of our field work was to evaluate the conservation status of Lecythidaceae in this biologically rich but endangered part of Brazil.

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NYBG Science Grads: Robin Sleith

Posted in NYBG Grad Students on December 16, 2013 by Matt Newman

Robin SleithThe New York Botanical Garden may be a hub of environmental conservation and a botanical museum, but it’s also an institution of growth—and I’m not just referencing our plant collections. Here in our laboratories we host an international body of students whose enthusiasm for botany and its related disciplines fires a passion for learning, with many of them pursuing graduate degrees through research at the NYBG. Of these, a handful were more than happy to sit down and tell us about their chosen fields and the motivations that brought them here, as well as the tools and techniques they employ in their day-to-day studies.

As a first-year grad student with a specialization in freshwater green algae, Robin Sleith spends plenty of time around lakes and rivers, often trawling for algal species with an improvised tool that Dr. Kenneth Karol and his post-doc, Dr. John Hall, dreamed up from an egg whisk. But while the collection methods may be simplistic, the science behind Sleith’s studies is anything but. Check out the video below to see how a childhood spent exploring the wilderness of New Hampshire led Robin to the cusp of a career as a scientist and conservationist.

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Plain English and The Tree of Life

Posted in Nuggets from the Archives on December 13, 2013 by Ann Rafalko

Smithatris supraneeana. Illustration by Alice Tangerini (Smithsonian).

The turn of the year between 2011 and 2012 was an exciting time for the scientists who work, teach, and research at The New York Botanical Garden.

In December of 2011, scientists at the Botanical Garden, the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), New York University, and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory announced that they had created the largest genome-based tree of life for seed plants to date. In January of 2012, James S. Miller, Ph.D., Dean and Vice President for Science at the Garden, explained important changes in the requirements for the naming of newly discovered plants beginning that year. Earlier in 2011, Dr. Miller had been the lead author on an article in the online journal PhytoKeys summarizing the changes. To say that these scientific advancements are huge is a gross understatement, but how to understand them?

Let’s use plain English, which is exactly what the new plant-naming requirements do. As outlined in an op-ed published in the New York Times on January 22, 2012, Dr. Miller, who took part in the International Botanical Congress in Melbourne, Australia, where the changes were approved, explains that plants will still be named in Latin, but that they will no longer have to be described in Latin. This laborious process–which has been on the botanical books since 1908–is only the first hurdle each botanist must clear before he may name a new plant species. The next step, the publishing of this description in a printed, paper-based journal, has also been done away with by the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature in an effort to speed the naming of plants. Why the hurry? As Dr. Miller says, “as many as one-third of all plant species (may be) at risk of extinction in the next 50 years.” One way to save a plant is to name a plant. From there, scientists–freed from the strictures of Latin–may further investigate the plant and all of its potentialities.

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Journey to Brazil: Searching for an Answer to a Botanical Problem in Espiríto Santo

Posted in Travelogue on December 12, 2013 by Scott Mori

Scott A. Mori is the Nathaniel Lord Britton Curator of Botany at the The New York Botanical Garden, and his primary research interests are the ecology, classification, and conservation of tropical rain forest trees. His most recent book is Tropical Plant Collecting: From the Field to the Internet. This is the second in a three-part series documenting his latest trip to Brazil.

The Brazil nut team in Espiríto Santo. Left to right: Nate Smith, Anderson Aves Araújo, Michel Ribeiro, and Scott Mori.
The Brazil nut team in Espiríto Santo. Left to right: Nate Smith, Anderson Aves Araújo, Michel Ribeiro, and Scott Mori.

During two weeks in November, three colleagues and I explored the remnant woodlands of the once-abundant Atlantic coastal forest of Espírito Santo, a Brazilian state on the Atlantic coast just north of Rio de Janeiro. We were searching for poorly known species of the Brazil nut family, whose scientific name is Lecythidaceae, and we were especially interested in collecting in Espírito Santo because it is an area of intensive human development. Only a fraction of the natural habitat remains.

The trip followed my visit to the Rio de Janeiro Botanical Garden, where I taught a short course on the Brazil nut family. Joining me were Michel Ribeiro, who is preparing a treatment of the Brazil nut family as part of his master’s degree requirements; Anderson Alves-Araújo, a botany professor at the Federal University of Espiríto Santo who is one of Michel’s advisors; and Nate Smith, a specialist in the Brazil family and an Honorary Research Associate at The New York Botanical Garden.

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A Silver Lining from Super Typhoon Haiyan

Posted in Travelogue on December 10, 2013 by Gregory Plunkett

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

Dr. Gregory Plunkett pressing plants in a Palauan rainforest.

A month ago, one of the deadliest typhoons in recorded history ripped through the western Pacific on a collision course with the Philippines, where it took the lives of nearly 6,000 people after it made landfall on November 8. On its way, Super Typhoon Haiyan battered the Pacific island nation of Palau, where we and two local researchers were studying the flora of this remote archipelago as part of The New York Botanical Garden’s long-term commitment to the botany of the region.

It’s hard to conceive of a bright side to the devastation and suffering left in the wake of Haiyan, but our team managed to put the storm’s enormous power to some good use. Our arrival in Palau (also known as Belau and comprising over 250 islands) preceded Haiyan’s by just three days. We were joined by Ann Kitalong and Van Ray Tadao, two researchers from the Belau National Museum, to document the flora of some of the country’s least known forest habitats on the main island of Babeldaob and to continue working on a book that will document Palau’s ethnobotany, the second in a series of volumes examining the relationship between plants and people in Micronesia.

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