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

Archive: February 2015

Sorting Out the Family Trees of Some Vietnamese Trees—Part One

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on February 27, 2015 by Douglas Daly

Douglas C. Daly, Ph.D., is the Director of the Institute of Systematic Botany and the B. A. Krukoff Curator of Amazonian Botany at The New York Botanical Garden. Among his research activities, he is a specialist in the Burseraceae (frankincense and myrrh) family of plants.

Habitat of Pentaspadon poilanei on Tien Du Mountain, near Nha Trang City, Khanh Hoa Province.
Habitat of Pentaspadon poilanei on Tien Du Mountain, near Nha Trang City, Khanh Hoa Province

Vietnam is home to a number of species of trees in two closely related plant families, the sumac or cashew family (Anacardiaceae) and the frankincense and myrrh family (Burseraceae), but for decades, many of these species were poorly known and had never been sampled for leaf material for obtaining DNA sequences that would help resolve their evolutionary relationships and contribute to informed decisions aimed at conserving them in the wild.

I was part of a team of five botanists—two from Vietnam and three from The New York Botanical Garden—who conducted a joint expedition in April and May of 2010 in search of trees belonging to these two important plant families. Drs. Le Dong Tan and Nguyen The Cuong represented the Vietnam Academy of Science and Technology/Institute of Ecology and Biological Resources, and the Botanical Garden was represented by Dr. Susan Pell, John Mitchell, and me.

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Late Bloomer: The Short, Prolific Career of Ynes Mexia

Posted in Nuggets from the Archives on February 26, 2015 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.

A photograph of Ynes Mexia in the field
A photograph of Ynes Mexia in the field

Ynes Mexia, a Mexican-American botanical collector and explorer who began her career in 1925, became the most accomplished female botanical collector of her time both in terms of the number of plant specimens she collected and the miles she traveled on her expeditions. Although she began in her mid-50s and her career was relatively short, she was able to collect an incredible 145,000 specimens. Of those, 500 were new species, and 50 were named in her honor. The William and Lynda Steere Herbarium is fortunate to have many of her specimens.

Mexia was born on May 24, 1870, in Washington, D.C. There are varying accounts of Mexia’s early life, but it is agreed that it was somewhat tumultuous. When she was very young, her parents divorced. Her father returned to his native Mexico, and her mother moved the family to Texas. She was married twice: her first marriage ended abruptly with her husband’s death, and her second marriage ended in divorce. After her divorce, she moved from Mexico City to San Francisco and became involved in social work. She also became an active member of the Sierra Club, which motivated her to attend the University of California, Berkeley.

Her interest in botanical collecting began in 1922 when she joined an expedition led by E. L. Furlong, a Berkeley paleontologist. She enrolled in a course on flowering plants at the Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove, California, and soon after embarked on her first botanical exploration trip to Mexico with Stanford botanist Roxana Ferris. Once in Mexico, Mexia decided that she could accomplish more on her own and abandoned the group, traveling the country for two years and collecting more than 1,500 specimens. She made three additional expeditions to Mexico and collected throughout South America in remote areas of Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru. She also collected in Alaska and other areas of the United States.

One of the highlights of her explorations was canoeing the Amazon River from its delta to its source in the Andes, covering nearly 3,000 miles in two and a half years. Her specimens were widely distributed to herbaria throughout the U.S. and Western Europe. In addition to collecting, Mexia wrote articles and gave lectures describing her adventures and travels. She died of lung cancer in 1938.

Credit is due to Nina Floy Bracelin, affectionately known as Bracie, who prepared Mexia’s specimens for herbaria. She worked diligently to label the specimens, sending sets to specialists so their species could be determined and distributing the duplicates. Mexia was said to be more interested in exploration and discovery rather than preparing her specimens, but her legacy lives on through those preserved botanical collections, including those that can be found today in the Steere Herbarium.

Saurauia mexiae Steere Herbarium type specimen
This specimen of Saurauia mexiae in the Steere Herbarium was collected by Mexia and named in her honor. It is a “type specimen,” which is a specimen selected to serve as a reference point when a plant species is first named.

For more information, please refer to:

“Mexia, Ynes Enriquetta Julietta (1870-1938).” JSTOR Global Plants. http://plants.jstor.org/stable/10.5555/al.ap.person.bm000033443

Bracelin, N. Floy. 1982. “The Ynes Mexia Botanical Collections,” an oral history conducted in 1965 and 1967 by Anetta Carter. Regional Oral History Office, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley. http://archive.org/stream/ynsmexabotan00bracrich/ynsmexabotan00bracrich_djvu.txt

Radcliffe, Jane. “Ynes Mexia (1870-1938): Biographical Sketch.” California Academy of Sciences, http://researcharchive.calacademy.org/research/library/special/bios/Mexia.pdf

“Ynes Mexia Collection, 1918-1966.” University and Jepson Herbaria Archives, University of California, Berkeley. http://ucjeps.berkeley.edu/archon/?p=collections/findingaid&id=77&q=&rootcontentid=7350

Documenting Plant Diversity: Using a Flora to Describe Flora

Posted in Applied Science on February 20, 2015 by Scott Mori

Scott A. Mori, Ph.D., is a Curator Emeritus associated with the Institute of Systematic Botany at The New York Botanical Garden. His research interests are the ecology, classification, and conservation of tropical rain forest trees.

Two graphs showing the history of plant collection in central French Guiana. A. Progressive accumulation of vascular plant species known from the flora of central French Guiana from 1950 to 1999. B. As the species of the area became better known each of the collections became more valuable because of the new information it provided.
Two graphs showing the history of plant collection in central French Guiana. A. Progressive accumulation of vascular plant species known from the flora of central French Guiana from 1950 to 1999. B. As the species of the area became better known each of the collections became more valuable because of the new information it provided.

Among the many products of the research published by scientists at The New York Botanical Garden (NYBG) are Floras. A Flora is a book in which species are described, while the word flora refers to the totality of plant species in an area; in other words, a flora is described in a Flora.

Floristic publications document and describe the diversity of a given group of plants growing in specific geographic areas. They may be floras of algae, mosses, ferns, gymnosperms, and angiosperms or combinations of these groups. For example, a Flora might include all of the vascular plants (ferns, gymnosperms, and angiosperms) of the northeastern United States. The equivalent of a Flora for fungi is called a Mycota, because fungi are more closely related to animals than they are to plants.

Some examples of Floras are the Manual of Vascular Plants of Northeastern United States and Adjacent Canada by Henry A. Gleason and Arthur Cronquist, the Intermountain Flora recently completed by Noel and Patricia K. Holmgren and their colleagues, and Pleurocarpous mosses of the West Indies by William R. Buck–all published by The New York Botanical Garden Press. Floras are important because they allow both amateur and professional botanists to identify plants—the first step in developing a deeper appreciation of plants and for carrying out research on them. In addition, scientific Floras or Mycotas serve as the basis for field guides such as Roy Halling and Gregory M. Mueller’s Common Mushrooms of the Talamanca Mountains, Costa Rica.

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A Salute to Jackie Kallunki

Posted in Personalities in Science on February 19, 2015 by Barbara Thiers

Barbara M. Thiers, Ph.D., is the Patricia K. Holmgren Director of the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium and Vice President for Science Administration at The New York Botanical Garden.

Jacquelyn A. Kallunki, Ph.D.
Jacquelyn A. Kallunki, Ph.D.

Jackie Kallunki, Ph.D., first came to The New York Botanical Garden in late 1975 and worked for a while identifying neotropical plant specimens and gathering data for an ethnobotanical project. At that time, she was still working on her Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Wisconsin. After she completed her dissertation, she came back to the Botanical Garden as a full-time employee. And now, I’m sad to say, she has retired.

Over the years, as Jackie rose through the ranks to become Assistant Director of the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium, she worked closely with Patricia K. Holmgren, Ph.D., who was then Director of the Herbarium. This was a very active period in the Herbarium’s history in terms of acquisitions, loans, visitors, and special projects such as the incorporation of orphaned herbaria and expansion of the collection.

The crowning achievement of this period was the planning of the new Steere Herbarium and then moving the multi-million-specimen collection into it. Jackie was the one who figured out how much space each group of plants should receive and where it should go, and she supervised the highly complicated process of moving the specimens to the Herbarium. It took 58 Garden staff, interns, and volunteers a total of about 3,300 hours to accomplish this move. The fact that the process went smoothly and according to schedule is a testament to Jackie’s planning abilities, determination and powers of intimidation!

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Four “Flavors” of New Plant Species, Part Four

Posted in New Plant Discoveries on February 13, 2015 by Benjamin Torke

Benjamin M. Torke, Ph.D., is an Assistant Curator at the Garden’s Institute of Systematic Botany. His specialty is legumes, a large plant family that includes not only beans and peanuts but also hundreds of rain forest tree species.

Rare. Restricted. Remote. Those are three characteristics, or “flavors,” of the new species that plant scientists discover and describe every year. Breaking our pattern, the fourth and final flavor in this series does not begin with an “r.” Some new species are cryptic.

The most recent comprehensive taxonomic treatment of Swartzia was written by the late Dr. Richard Cowan, curator of legumes at The New York Botanical Garden during the 1950s. In that seminal work, Cowan brought order to chaos. Previous authors had given numerous scientific names to the same species. Cowan recognized one name for each species and classified the other names as synonyms. In at least one case, however, it appears that he may have gone a bit too far.

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In the News: Dr. Dennis Wm. Stevenson in The New York Times

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on February 12, 2015 by Stevenson Swanson

Stevenson Swanson is the Garden’s Science Media Manager.

Ginkgo biloba 'Pendula'
Ginkgo biloba ‘Pendula’

The label on that herbal supplement may say it’s Ginkgo biloba, but given the loose regulation of this multi-billion-dollar industry, how can a consumer be sure that that is what it really contains?

That question prompted the New York Attorney General’s office to investigate the ingredients in some popular herbal supplements using a technology that examines the DNA of the ingredients to determine what they are. The investigation’s disturbing findings—four out of five of the products tested did not contain any of the herbs on their labels—led New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman to order Target, Walgreens, Walmart, and GNC to stop selling their house brands of the supplements.

Using similar DNA “barcoding” technology, New York Botanical Garden scientists have been studying the same question for years, as Dennis Wm. Stevenson, Ph.D., Cullman Curator and Vice President for Botanical Research, pointed out in a letter to the editor that ran in the February 10 edition of The New York Times.

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Four “Flavors” of New Plant Species, Part Three

Posted in New Plant Discoveries on February 6, 2015 by Benjamin Torke

Benjamin M. Torke, Ph.D., is an Assistant Curator at the Garden’s Institute of Systematic Botany. His specialty is legumes, a large plant family that includes not only beans and peanuts but also hundreds of rain forest tree species.

Swartzia "sparouinensis"
Swartzia “sparouinensis”
(Photo: H. Richard)

So far in this series about the most common characteristics of new plant species, we’ve seen that some are rare and some are restricted. Another “flavor” of new species is that they can be remote.

A couple of years ago, Hélène Richard, a researcher at the National Forest Office of French Guiana in northern South America, sent me an email with a few blurry photos of a small tree. She wrote that she thought it was a species of Swartzia and asked if I might be able to identify it.

I was pretty familiar with the dozen or so species that were known to occur in French Guiana, an overseas department of France, because I had visited there in 2002 and had studied the genus in the local herbarium and in the field. But the plant in these photos, while certainly a Swartzia, did not look like any of those species, nor did it closely resemble any other described species. I wrote her back right away, informing her that I thought it was new to science. I asked for more details about where the photo had been taken and whether it might be possible to revisit the spot to collect additional material.

She responded that the plant was encountered in dense rain forest during the first, and to date only, botanical expedition to the remote Sparouine Mountains and that it was unlikely that the locality would be revisited soon since the only access was by helicopter! Fortunately, the local herbarium agreed to lend the single specimen that was collected, and I am now working up a description of the species, which I intend to call Swartzia sparouinensis.

Full Circle—From the Rockies to the Bronx and Back

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on February 5, 2015 by Jonathan Toll

Jonathan W. Toll is a Project Manager for The William and Lynda Steere Herbarium. He is currently involved with the Great Lakes Invasives project, a multi-institutional effort that focuses on digitizing non-indigenous and related species of vascular plants, green algae, fish, and mollusks in the Great Lakes Basin.

Calmagrostis neglecta specimen collected in 1912
Calmagrostis neglecta specimen collected in 1912

While cataloguing herbarium specimens for a large, multi-institutional project last year, I came across a particular specimen, Calmagrostis neglecta, that caught my eye. This species is a perennial grass that ranges throughout the northern United States; it is usually found in wetlands but can also occur in non-wetland areas. What stood out for me was a phrase on the specimen label: “Ragtown, near Tolland, Colo. Aug. 22, 1912. Francis Ramaley.”

I briefly visited Tolland in 2009, and when I came across the specimen, I was planning on going there again. My dad had been there countless weekends, so I emailed him to tell him about the specimen label. He replied with another fascinating nugget of information. “I wonder if Margaret Ramaley is somehow related to Francis Ramaley,” he wrote. “She is still in Tolland last time I heard”. With that as background, I flew into Denver’s airport at the end of last July and drove into the Rockies.

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