Plants produce 98 percent of atmospheric oxygen through photosynthesis. Everything we eat comes directly or indirectly from plants. One quarter of prescription drugs come directly from plants or are plant derivatives. Fossilized plants provide energy in the form of fossil fuels such as oil and coal.
Given the importance of plants in every aspect of our lives, humans study plants to understand processes that are critical to our own survival and to the health of the planet. Beyond their obvious importance, plants have played key roles in a broad range of biological discoveries that have helped us understand some of the most fascinating mysteries of life.
One of the most important research facilities at The New York Botanical Garden is the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium, but unless you’re a plant scientist or seriously interested in botany, chances are you’re unfamiliar with what a herbarium is and why it’s crucial to the task of understanding and conserving Earth’s plant life.
Simply put, a herbarium is a library of plants—7.3 million preserved plant specimens, in the case of the Steere Herbarium. That makes it the largest herbarium in the Western Hemisphere and one of the four largest in the world.
But what can researchers learn from all those specimens? How do they use the knowledge stored there? How was the Steere Herbarium founded, and does it contain just the things that average people think of as plants—trees, flowers and shrubs? What about seaweed, moss, lichens and mushrooms?
In this last post about Cuban Johnny berries and meadow beauties, I want to show some of the species found in the northeastern part of the island. The mountain ranges in this area—the Sierra de Moa, Baracoa, Nipe and Cristal—are all rich in minerals and have unique soils that contain high concentrations of metals. These metals are toxic for many plants, but this plant family, the Melastomataceae, has adapted to these conditions.
Calycogonium glabratum, Miconia baracosensis, Miconia uninervis, Ossaea moensis, and Ossaea puciflora are not closely related, but they have all evolved small, hard leaves as an adaptation to the high toxicity of the soils they inhabit.
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.
All of the scientists at The New York Botanical Garden have stories to tell about our work, our travels, and the people we meet along the way. I’ve had the opportunity to tell some of my stories and provide lessons about the importance of nature and botanical research in a new book,Rodale’s21st Century Herbal: A Practical Guide for Healthy Living Using Nature’s Most Powerful Plants.
Rodale’s 21st Century Herbal, from the publisher of Organic Gardening and many other health and wellness magazines, is written from the perspective of ethnobotany, the study of the relationship between plants and people.
My goal was to tell the story of how plants have been used as medicines, foods, spices, dyes, cosmetics, and other things from our earliest days as a species to the present day, with the current explosion of interest in gardening, herbal medicine, and different dietary patterns.