We were scheduled to leave Punta Arenas on January 7, but after waiting all day, we finally took our luggage to this year’s new ship at about 10:30 p.m. and weren’t underway until after midnight. The owner of the previous years’ ship had increased the price so much that we could no longer afford it. However, we were lucky to find a ship for the same price as last year, and we began settling into the Doña Pilar. We have a crew of four this year. Interestingly, the captain has the same name as our previous captain: Pato, short for Patricio. The new ship seems to have the same dimensions as our previous boat but with a different configuration. Unlike before, where we had a single large bunkroom, the Doña Pilar has four small bedrooms, each with a single bunk bed and a pair of small cupboards. The space under the bunks is open, allowing us to stow our luggage there rather than in the middle of the bunkroom floor.
As one of the first scientists to be associated with The New York Botanical Garden, Henry Hurd Rusby started the botanical garden’s long history of research in economic botany, the study of how people use plants. Appointed Honorary Curator of the Economic Collections in 1898 (a position for which he volunteered and which he held until his death), Rusby acquired useful plants and plant-derived products through donation, exchange, and field excursions for the garden’s Economic Museum.
These specimens were arranged first by use, then by phylogeny (their evolutionary relationships), and were put on display at the turn of the 20th century on the main floor of the newly built museum building, which is now called the Library Building. The collection occupied more than 200 glass cases. Rusby placed great emphasis on ensuring that each item in the museum have the correct origin and scientific name. That’s standard practice today, but at the time many specimens lacked these important pieces of information.
After several years of shuttling to and from the far end of South America, this is to be our final expedition as part of this project to inventory the mosses and liverworts of the Cape Horn Archipelago. I have mixed emotions. Although I am sad to see the fieldwork come to a conclusion and, as a consequence, never again see this majestic landscape, at the same time I won’t miss the long, often exhausting flights down to the southern end of the world.
My flight out of New York was scheduled for the morning of Friday, January 3. Coincidentally, this was the day after a major winter storm had dumped eight inches (15 cm) of snow on the city, letting up only a few hours prior to my departure.
In contrast, the surrounding hillsides shone brown as my plane descended onto the airstrip in Santiago, Chile. It was obviously summer. Only a slender silver thread of water made its way along the valley bottoms, and I was glad that I found myself headed to a more verdant destination. Once inside the airport, I had expected to meet my Chilean counterpart, Juan Larraín, but he failed to appear by the time my connecting flight to Punta Arenas was ready to depart. The flight to Punta Arenas usually stops in Puerto Montt. While on the ground there, I glanced up from my reading to see if I could catch Juan among the boarding passengers, but to no avail. However, after the plane was in the air again, I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned to see the person I was looking for. Juan had boarded in Puerto Montt after all. One more piece of the puzzle fell into place.
Pau brasil (Caesalpinia echinata), a member of the legume plant family and the national tree of Brazil, has played an important role in the history of that country. Pau is the colloquial name for árvore (or tree), and the red sap it exudes when the trunk is cut has the color of a burning piece of charcoal (brasa in Portuguese). So pau brasil is translated into English as the Brazil tree. According to some historians, this common name was adopted from the plant as the name of the country, the largest and most biodiverse in South America.
Brazil (spelled Brasil in Portuguese) was discovered in 1500 by the Portuguese explorer Pedro Álvares Cabral, who landed near the present-day city of Santa Cruz de Cabralia in the state of Bahia. At that time, pau brasil was plentiful in the coastal forests of Brazil. The sap was economically important because it was used for dying cloth, but today the tree is best known as the source of highly prized timber used to create bows for string instruments such as violins and cellos.
Rain, isolation, and a unique geology, all factors that I have referred to in previous posts about Tafelberg, play very important roles in the amount of biodiversity on the summit of the mountain. However, another important factor is the great variety of environments on the summit, whose flat surface is the reason its name is Dutch for “table mountain.”
The top of Tafelberg is a very large, roughly triangular plateau. It measures about nine miles long by six miles wide and covers an area of some 30 square miles. The surface of the plateau looked homogenous as we approached the summit in the helicopter, but it quickly became clear upon landing that we would be able to explore many different vegetation types. Large areas of the summit are covered by tall forests filled with a close relative of the rubber tree. A network of small creeks crisscrosses the summit, creating hundreds of “islands.”
Damon P. Little, Ph.D., is Assistant Curator of Bioinformatics in The Lewis B. and Dorothy Cullman Program for Molecular Systematics. In addition to his research projects involving large sets of plant DNA data, he studies the cypress family of conifers.
Saw palmetto is the third best-selling herbal supplement in the United States, with sales totaling more than $31 million in 2012, but are the men who buy these supplements getting saw palmetto or something else?
That was the question my collaborator and I set out to answer when we extracted DNA from 34 saw palmetto supplements that we bought at retail stores in New York City and online. By comparing the DNA sequences of the supplements with DNA from samples of saw palmetto and its close relatives, we would find out whether the supplements were genuine or not.
Men take supplements made from the fruit of saw palmetto (Serenoa repens, a member of the palm family) to alleviate the symptoms of an enlarged prostate. Almost all commercial saw palmetto fruit is harvested from wild plants that can be found throughout the southeastern United States (Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina). Several clinical studies have tried to determine if saw palmetto is beneficial, but the results remain inconclusive.
George Washington Carver may be best remembered for his domestication and promotion of the peanut, but the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium contains evidence of another of his contributions—documenting fungal diseases of plants, which, among other things, is an important cause of crop loss on farms.
Carver was born to slave parents on a farm near Diamond Grove, Missouri, around 1864. Although his boyhood was full of struggle against poverty, racism, and illness, his powerful intellect and insatiable curiosity helped him to persevere with his studies. He entered Simpson College in Iowa and then transferred to Iowa State University, becoming the first African-American student to be enrolled there.
After graduation, Carver was appointed assistant botanist at the Iowa State University Experiment Station. His research program in crop diseases brought him to the attention of Booker T. Washington, head of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. In 1896, Washington became head of the agricultural and dairy department at Tuskegee, where he remained for the rest of his long career. He died in 1943.
Collecting in remote areas always presents interesting challenges, some of which are precisely the reason we visit these places. Tafelberg, a table mountain in central Suriname, is an isolated mountain that has only been explored a handful of times in the 60 years since the first ascent by New York Botanical Garden scientist Basset Maguire, which I described in a previous post. One of the reasons the vegetation is unique is the extraordinary amount of rain that falls here every year. Although our team of six scientists had planned our visit for the “dry” season, a rainforest is always…well, rainy. The difference between the seasons is not whether it rains or not, but the number of hours that it rains and the total amount of rainfall.
On our third day on the summit, the storm clouds that had been menacing us since the first afternoon finally came over the mountain. The skies opened for more than 30 hours straight. Because our time was limited, we kept working through the downpours.
The series of events by which flowering plants reproduce themselves is amazingly complicated and precise. One of the most critical processes occurs just after pollination, when pollen grains land on or are delivered by a bee or another pollinator to the surface of the stigma, one of the female reproductive organs within the flower.
The pollen grains begin to grow, or germinate. These germinating pollen grains produce tubes that grow through the tissue of the style and into the plant’s ovary. The sperm cells within the tubes will be delivered into the ovule—the plant equivalent of an unfertilized egg—so that fertilization and sexual reproduction can occur. That leads to seeds, the basis for the next generation of a plant species.
Fluorescence microscopy, one of the research techniques available to scientists at The New York Botanical Garden, allows us to see the path of the pollen tubes as they grow through the surface of the stigma and into the style, where the ovule awaits. In this species of Symplocos—a genus of of about 250 related plant species native to Asia, Australia, and the Americas—we can see the germinating pollen grains growing from the lobes below the top of the style.
Novels are full of unconventional women, from Jane Austen’s spunky Elizabeth Bennet to the brilliant botanist Alma Whittaker in Elizabeth Gilbert’s recent novel The Signature of All Things. But Mary Katharine Layne Curran Brandegee (1844-1920), a real-life botanist, could certainly have taught these fictional women a thing or two about forging your own path.
Born Mary Katharine Layne in 1844 to a Tennessee farmer, she was a young girl when the Laynes moved west to California during the 1849 gold rush, eventually settling in Folsom, California. She married Hugh Curran, a constable, in 1866, but he died of alcoholism in 1874. Often described as strong-willed, Mrs. Curran moved to San Francisco the following year and enrolled at the University of California’s medical school. She was only the third woman to do so.
At that time, botany was an essential component of medical science education, and after receiving her degree, Curran followed the advice of an instructor and pursued botany rather than practice medicine. She became a member of the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco in 1879, continuing her botanical training by collecting plants throughout California and working in the Academy’s herbarium. In 1883, Curran was appointed a curator of botany, one of the first women to hold such a position at a major museum, and in 1891 she became the sole botanical curator.