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

Archive: March 2014

From the Field: Bill Buck in Cape Horn 2014, Part 6

Posted in Travelogue on March 28, 2014 by Bill Buck

William R. Buck, Ph.D., is the Mary Flagler Cary Curator of Botany at The New York Botanical Garden. Every January for the last three years, Dr. Buck, a moss specialist, and a team of colleagues have journeyed to the Cape Horn region at the southern tip of South America, to document the area’s rich diversity of mosses and search for new species.


January 16, 2014; Puerto Williams, Isla Navarino, Chile (54°56’S, 67°36’W)

Bill Buck ashore in Puerto Williams
Bill Buck ashore in Puerto Williams

We returned to Isla Hoste the night before last, coming ashore at Punta Escala on BahĂ­a Packsaddle. The day was colder than the previous one and sleet started falling shortly after we entered the field. It was a nice reminder of the “good times” we’ve had in years past.

I knew there was a stream somewhere in the direction I was headed, but every time I thought I heard running water it turned out to be the sound of the sleet pelting down in the forest. When I finally popped out of the vegetation and onto the beach, the stream was only a short distance ahead. Unfortunately, my scheduled pick-up meant I didn’t have time to work my way upstream. I left that to my colleagues John Brinda and Juan Larrain, who found a number of interesting mosses.

I would have wanted to collect everything myself when I was younger, but at my age I’m just glad that someone collected the material. I was simply happy to have had the time alone in the forest, finding what I did. There aren’t many advantages to advanced maturity, but a less competitive attitude is certainly one of them.

Read More

Over Deserts and Mountains: A Botanist’s Love

Posted in Nuggets from the Archives on March 26, 2014 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. Each Wednesday throughout Women’s History Month, Science Talk will celebrate one of the many women of science to have left a mark on botanical history.


Mt. Lemmon as seen from Oracle, AZ
Mt. Lemmon as seen from Oracle, AZ

Every time I walk by the California poppies (Eschscholzia californica) that bloom in the Rock Garden at The New York Botanical Garden, I get a little homesick. I am a California girl, born and raised. As it turns out, I have the botanist Sara Allen Plummer Lemmon to thank for making this poppy the state flower of California and an emblem of home.

Sara Allen Plummer was born in Maine in 1836, schooled in Massachusetts, taught art in New York City, and in 1869 made her way to Santa Barbara, California to improve her health. Upon settling in, she opened up a stationery store and lending library (the first public library in Santa Barbara) and became fascinated by the local flora. She began drawing and collecting specimens of plants, and her store became a cultural hub in town, offering art exhibits, lectures, and readings. Sara met John Gill Lemmon (botanist, teacher, Civil War veteran) in 1876 when he came to California to study and collect the local plants. Their shared interest in botany no doubt played a part in their love affair, and the two were married in 1880.

Read More

Inside An Ethnobotanist’s Backpack: A Powerful, Miniature Flashlight

Posted in What's In Your Bag on March 24, 2014 by Michael Balick

Michael J. Balick, Ph.D., is Vice President for Botanical Science at The New York Botanical Garden and Director and Philecology Curator of the Botanical Garden’s Institute of Economic Botany. For more than 30 years, he has studied the relationship between plants and people, working with traditional cultures in tropical, subtropical, and desert environments around the world.


An ethnobotanist by trade, I spend a great deal of time in remote parts of the world, thinking about how people relate to plants and how this relationship shapes their cultures. While packing for one of my expeditions, I realized that many of the tools I rely on during my travels are items I carry on a daily basis or have close at hand. In this series, I’ll share some of the things that I’ve found useful in the field and the city alike. Perhaps you will find some of these items helpful, even essential, in daily life or times of need. — M.J.B.

Mini LED flashlight

A flashlight is an essential part of fieldwork in places with no electricity. On my earliest travels to remote areas, each researcher had to carry a dozen or more large, D-size batteries to power a heavy flashlight during trips of several months’ duration.

Read More

From the Field: Bill Buck in Cape Horn 2014, Part 5

Posted in Travelogue on March 21, 2014 by Bill Buck

William R. Buck, Ph.D., is the Mary Flagler Cary Curator of Botany at The New York Botanical Garden. Every January for the last three years, Dr. Buck, a moss specialist, and a team of colleagues have journeyed to the Cape Horn region at the southern tip of South America, to document the area’s rich diversity of mosses and search for new species.


January 14, 2014; Isla Navarino, Caleta Douglas (55°10’S, 68°7’W)

Barbara Murray photos

Yesterday our activities were dominated by water. Due to a shortage of fresh water, we could no longer bathe until the tank was refilled, and flushing the toilet was accomplished with a bucket of sea water. We started the day at BahĂ­a Windhond on the south shore of Navarino. I’d never had the opportunity to collect on this side of Navarino, so I was glad to see this prominent bay at last.

Read More

In Search of the Flowers of the Amazon

Posted in Nuggets from the Archives on March 19, 2014 by Stella Sylva

Stella Sylva is an Administrative Curator of the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium at The New York Botanical Garden. Each Wednesday throughout Women’s History Month, Science Talk will celebrate one of the many women of science to have left a mark on botanical history.


Margaret Mee smelling the night-flowering Strophocactus
Margaret Mee smelling the night-flowering moonflower

Margaret Ursula Mee (1909-1988) was an English woman who, in the 1950s, traveled the Amazon’s rivers and explored the forest at a time when women simply did not do those things. She marveled at the richness of the flora in Brazil, and over the next three decades made a total of 15 expeditions, documenting with her brushes and pencils the flora and fauna of the Amazon.

Her formal art training was in ceramics and sculpture, though her botanical paintings were totally different from the three-dimensional art she created. She rendered the strength and beauty of the human form with great energy. By contrast, her paintings of plants are carefully detailed and accurately depict the botanical structures of the highly diverse flora of the Amazon. It was as if she entered the heart of the objects she painted.

Read More

Understanding the Past and Predicting the Future of a Biological Hotspot

Posted in From the Field on March 17, 2014 by Fabian Michelangeli

Fabián A. Michelangeli, Ph.D., is an Associate Curator of the Institute of Systematic Botany at The New York Botanical Garden. His research focuses in part on the evolution, identification, and classification of neotropical plants.


Canopy of Atlantic Forest in Espiritu Santo. Less than 11 percent of the original forest remains.
Canopy of Atlantic Forest in Espiritu Santo. Less than 11 percent of the original forest remains.

With their rich diversity of species, including many found nowhere else, the Atlantic forests of eastern Brazil constitute one of Earth’s biodiversity hotspots. They demonstrate a truly unique set of environmental, geological, and biological conditions. But because of rapid population growth in the region and more than 400 years of continuous deforestation, less than 11 percent of the original forest area still exists.

To understand how the coastal forests developed and what could happen to them in the future, an international team of scientists spanning many disciplines met in Brazil last month to begin work on a new research project that could help in efforts to conserve what remains of these ecological marvels. The goal of the project, which is expected to last five years, is to study the conditions that led to these high levels of biodiversity and localized species and to develop models to predict what may happen to that biodiversity in light of further habitat destruction and climate change.

Read More

From the Field: Bill Buck in Cape Horn 2014, Part 4

Posted in Travelogue on March 14, 2014 by Bill Buck

William R. Buck, Ph.D., is the Mary Flagler Cary Curator of Botany at The New York Botanical Garden. Every January for the last three years, Dr. Buck, a moss specialist, and a team of colleagues have journeyed to the Cape Horn region at the southern tip of South America, to document the area’s rich diversity of mosses and search for new species.


January 12, 2014; Isla Hoste, Bahía Orange, Caleta Duck, Chile (55°32’S, 68°05.5’W)

At sea near Hardy Peninsula

We left Coloane a bit before 8 p.m. yesterday evening. Navigating down the southwest arm of the Beagle Channel, we got our first opportunity to see the string of glaciers that crown the rugged peaks. Fortunately, the waters were calm and the temperature relatively warm, keeping many of us on deck to enjoy the scenery in the dimming light.

We awoke shortly before 7 a.m. when the ship’s engines finally shut down. Coming out onto the deck, we were greeted by BahĂ­a Orange, the site where an early French expedition had stopped. We were anchored in Caleta MisiĂłn, the exact place where the French had sought shelter over a century ago. Although the sky was lightly spitting, the day promised pleasant weather, at least according to the rising barometer. I hoped this would mean we could get back to our original itinerary and head out to Isla Hermite, but the northeastern direction of the wind meant the seas would be rough. The captain, Ernesto, and I went over the maps to determine where we should go in the coming days.

Read More

The Amazing Feat of Jeanne Baret

Posted in Nuggets from the Archives on March 12, 2014 by Elizabeth Kiernan

Elizabeth Kiernan is a project coordinator for the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium at The New York Botanical Garden. She is currently working on a program to document the biodiversity of the Amazonian region of South America. Each Wednesday throughout Women’s History Month, Science Talk will celebrate one of the many women of science to have left a mark on botanical history.


An engraving of Jeanne Baret which portrays her in loose-fitting clothing. (Credit: Leemage/Getty Images/Universal Images Gr.)
An engraving of Jeanne Baret portrays her in loose-fitting clothing. (Credit: Leemage/Getty Images/Universal Images Gr.)

Jeanne Baret risked everything for her love of botany and, in doing so, became the first woman to circumnavigate the globe. This notable feat was even more remarkable because for much of the voyage, her shipmates did not know she was a woman.

Baret was born in France in 1740. Her working-class parents taught her to identify plants for their healing properties, and she became an expert “herb woman,” a peasant schooled in botanical medicine. Her passion for botany drew her to renowned naturalist Philibert Commerson, who shared her fascination with plants.

Through the recommendation of Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist who devised the system for naming species that science still uses today, Commerson was hired as the botanist on Louis de Bougainville’s voyage around the world in search of undiscovered territories, which set sail in 1766.

Commerson wanted Baret to join him in identifying and collecting plant species because of her vast botanical knowledge, but at this time women were strictly prohibited from sailing aboard French ships. Baret and Commerson devised a plan so that she could join the expedition as Commerson’s field assistant: disguise Jeanne as “Jean” by wrapping bandages around her chest and dressing her in loose-fitting clothing to hide her gender.

Read More

Hanging Out in the Rain Forest

Posted in Location Shots from the Field on March 10, 2014 by Scott Mori

Scott A. Mori, Ph.D., is the Nathaniel Lord Britton Curator of Botany at The New York Botanical Garden. His research interests are the ecology, classification, and conservation of tropical rain forest trees.


The author after sunset and no where else to go but to his comfortable hammock. Photo by Carol Gracie.
The author after sunset with nowhere to go but to his comfortable hammock. Photo by Carol Gracie.

This winter’s severe cold and abundant snow have led me to recall the hundreds of comfortable nights I have spent sleeping in a hammock in a rain forest as part of my expeditions to collect plant specimens for the NYBG’s William and Lynda Steere Herbarium.

The hammock, an invention of Amazonian Indians, is the most practical way to sleep in the rain forest. Although it took me a while to get used to sleeping in a hammock, I now look forward to climbing into one after a long day of collecting and preparing plant specimens. The most comfortable hammocks are the traditional ones made of cotton, but the lightest are called garimpeiro hammocks, using the Portuguese word for prospectors or miners because Brazilian gold miners favor them. Made of synthetic fiber, they weigh less than a pound. In combination with a mosquito net and a large backpacking tarp, the garimpeiro hammock is ideal for trips requiring long hikes in the forest.

Read More

From the Field: Bill Buck in Cape Horn 2014, Part 3

Posted in From the Field on March 7, 2014 by Bill Buck

William R. Buck, Ph.D., is the Mary Flagler Cary Curator of Botany at The New York Botanical Garden. For the last three years, Dr. Buck, a moss specialist, and a team of colleagues have journeyed to the Cape Horn region at the southern tip of South America, an area rich in moss species.


January 11, 2014; Isla Hoste, Caleta Coloane, Chile (55°06’S, 69°49’W)

The author collecting on Isla Hoste
The author collecting on Isla Hoste

Yesterday the engines started at 5 a.m., and we began our trip back to Isla Stewart, heading for the eastern end this time. Although the engines wound to life early, it is never quiet on the ship, thanks to the generator. It is always running, supplying power to the dryers we use to preserve specimens. Nevertheless, there is a significant boost in decibels once the main power plant starts up.

Read More