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

Archive: March 2015

Roots Revisited: The Britton Cottage, Then and Now

Posted in Nuggets from the Archives on March 27, 2015 by Stevenson Swanson

Stevenson Swanson is the Garden’s Science Media Manager.

Nathaniel Lord Britton Cottage Historic Richmond Town Staten island
The Britton Cottage as it looks today at Historic Richmond Town

A recent Science Talk post told the story of the Staten Island origins of our founder, Nathaniel Lord Britton, who came from a long line of Staten Islanders. Remarkably, the Britton house, which was built in about 1670 and expanded twice in the 18th century, is still standing.

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A Salute to Scott Mori

Posted in Personalities in Science on March 26, 2015 by Brian Boom

Brian M. Boom, Ph.D., is Vice President for Conservation Strategy, Director of NYBG Press and Science Outreach, and Bassett Maguire Curator of Botany at The New York Botanical Garden.

Scott A. Mori, Ph.D., spent the vast majority of his long, distinguished career at The New York Botanical Garden, having arrived here in 1975 as Research Associate working with Dr. Ghillean Prance on the systematics and ecology of the Brazil nut family, Lecythidaceae. Last fall, some four decades later, he retired as Nathaniel Lord Britton Curator of Botany in the Garden’s Institute of Systematic Botany.

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A Tropical Harbinger of Spring

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on March 20, 2015 by Scott Mori

Michel Ribeiro is a Brazilian specialist in the Brazil nut family (Lecythidaceae) and a Ph.D. candidate studying for an advanced degree at the National School of Tropical Botany of the Rio de Janeiro Botanical Garden. 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.

On this first day of spring in the Northern Hemisphere, we wanted to share a photo that captures the beauty of a rain forest tree that comes into its own during early spring in the Southern Hemisphere.

sapucaia (Lecythis pisonis) Brazil
A sapucaia tree growing in a coffee plantation in eastern Brazil displays its springtime color. Photo by Michel Ribeiro.

In a previous post, the second author described the life history of this magnificent tree, the sapucaia (Lecythis pisonis). Reaching 120 feet in height, it is pollinated by carpenter bees, and its seeds are dispersed by bats. The sapucaia drops it leaves in the Southern Hemisphere spring, remains leafless for 10 to 15 days, usually produces pink new leaves and flowers at the same time, and after flowering the leaves turn green.

During this time, the sapucaia tree is the most spectacular tree in the forests of eastern Brazil. The new leaves cover the tree, making it look as if its entire crown is full of flowers. Although purple flowers are present and beautiful, they are hidden by the pink leaves, which most likely play a significant role in attracting the pollinators. Bees visit most of the flowers to gather pollen, but, surprisingly, only two percent of the flowers yield fruits. We hypothesize that the reason for this is that the trees probably produce only enough carbohydrates for the flowers to develop into a limited number of its giant woody fruits, the size of a child’s head, as well as the large seeds they contain.

For more information about the phenology—that is, the cycle of leafing, flowering, and fruiting—of species in the Brazil nut family, visit the Lecythidaceae Pages and type “phenology” into the search box.

From War Paint to Candy Bars: An Extraordinarily Versatile Tropical Plant

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on March 19, 2015 by Ana María Ruiz

Ana María Ruiz is a herbarium data assistant for the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium at the New York Botanical Garden. She is working on the digitization of fungal specimens for the Macrofungi Collections Consortium Project and is a research assistant for the Lichens of the Mid-Atlantic Coastal Plain Project.

Bixa orellana
A plant specimen of Bixa orellana collected in Puerto Rico in 1993 by M. H. Nee, Ph.D.

Bixa orellana, also known as annatto, is a commonly used staple found in kitchens around the world. Everyone at one point or another has consumed it without even knowing it because it is almost tasteless. Used primarily as a food coloring, it has been added to butter, margarine, cheese, cured meats, rice, ice cream, and many other foods.

Nestlé chocolate will soon be added to that list. Nestlé USA recently announced that it was removing all artificial flavors and colorings from all of its chocolate candy by the end of 2015. Instead, the company will begin using annatto, particularly in its reformulation of Butterfinger candy bars. Annatto will provide the natural coloring in the crunchy orange center of the chocolate bar.

The New York Botanical Garden holds collections of the plant and fruit specimens, which can be observed, admired, or studied in the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium. As part of the Steere Herbarium’s digitization projects, the images of the plant and fruit specimens are also available through the Botanical Garden’s C.V. Starr Virtual Herbarium. And live specimens grow in the Lowland Tropical Rain Forest Gallery of the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory.

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Roots: Where The Garden’s Founder Found His Love of Plants

Posted in Nuggets from the Archives on March 13, 2015 by Stevenson Swanson

Stevenson Swanson is the Garden’s Science Media Manager.

Nathaniel Lord Britton New York Botanical Garden
Nathaniel Lord Britton

Nathaniel Lord Britton, the botanist who founded The New York Botanical Garden with his wife, Elizabeth, is so closely associated with this institution in the Bronx that it can come as a surprise to learn that he was a native son of the New York City borough that is most distant from here—Staten Island.

SILive, the Web site of the Staten Island Advance, provided a reminder of Britton’s roots in a recent piece that summarized the eminent botanist’s life and accomplishments.

Born in the New Dorp section of Staten Island in 1859, young Britton developed an interest in botany while growing up in what was then a bucolic setting. The Brittons were a long-established family there: an earlier Nathaniel Britton—whose wife’s name was, coincidentally, also Elizabeth—bought a fieldstone cottage in New Dorp in 1695.

Nathaniel Lord Britton historic Richmondtown Staten Island cottageEventually, Nathaniel Lord Britton and Elizabeth Knight Britton inherited the house, which they owned until 1915, when they deeded it to the Staten Island Institute of Arts and Sciences. It was moved in the 1960s to Historic Richmond Town, a historic town and farm museum, where it remains to this day. Although the Britton Cottage is currently closed to the public, the museum has completed a structure report and hopes to receive city funding to restore it.

By 1915, of course, the Botanical Garden was more than two decades old, leading one to wonder whether the Brittons regularly commuted to the Garden from Staten Island. But no: according to the Garden’s archivist, Stephen Sinon, they occupied the cottage only occasionally, living primarily in a residence on Decatur Avenue in the Bedford Park section of the Bronx, close to the Garden.

Still, the Brittons eventually returned to Staten Island. Dying within a few months of each other in 1934, they are buried in the Moravian Cemetery there.

A Powerful Plant for Fighting a Dreaded Disease

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on March 12, 2015 by Maya Jaffe

Maya Jaffe graduated from Florida International University and is currently an intern at the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium, where she is working on a project to digitize Thelephora and Agaric mushrooms.

“A handful of qinghao immersed with 2 liters of water, wring out the juice and drink it all.”

That was the recipe prescribed in 340 AD by Chinese alchemist Ge Hong in his A Handbook of Prescriptions for Emergencies as a treatment for malaria (1). For the bulk of human existence, people looked toward the forest and their gardens for remedies for their ailments, just as we now browse the aisles of our local pharmacy. So many of the modern drugs we rely on for our health have botanical precursors. In a way, Ge Hong’s advice still stands today because Quinghao, also known as sweet wormwood (Artemisia annua), contains the chemical compound artemisinin, found in most of the leading antimalarial drugs (2).

Artemisia annua is native to Eurasia and is cultivated on a large scale in China and Vietnam. This member of the Asteraceae (the daisy or sunflower family) is a shrub with a single stem that typically reaches a meter in height and has alternating branches with dissected, fern-like leaves and small, yellow flower heads. And, as the label on this 1957 specimen from the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium notes, “herb has medicinal uses.”

Artemisia annuaherbarium specimen

Ancient Chinese medicine typically utilizes the above-ground parts of the plant, but now scientists have narrowed their focus to the leaves, from which artemisinin can be extracted easily. Because of its chemical composition, artemisinin is highly unstable when warm and therefore has a short shelf life in hot environments. Because of this and the general expense of extraction, Dr. Jay Keasling at the University of California Berkeley is currently exploring the synthetic production of artemisinin (4).

While appreciating modern technology and scientific advances that allow for the development of synthetic drugs, we should recognize and value the medicinal properties inherent in many plants in their natural state, such as sweet wormwood. One way to do that is with The New York Botanical Garden’s Wild Medicine iPhone app, which explores the medicinal properties of various plants throughout the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory.

Next time you’re out in nature and admiring the flora, try to remember that while the aesthetic beauty of plants is breathtaking, those same plants may be vital to every breath that you take.

  1. Tu, Youyou. The Discovery of Artemisinin (qinghaosu) and Gifts from Chinese Medicine. Nature Medicine 17.10 (2011): 1217-220.
  2. White, N. J. “Assessment of the Pharmacodynamic Properties of Antimalarial Drugs in Vivo.” Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy. U.S. National Library of Medicine. 1997.
  3. WHO Monograph on Good Agricultural and Collection Practices (GACP) for Artemisia Annua L. Geneva, Switzerland: World Health Organization, 2006.
  4. Ro, Dae-Kyun, Eric M. Paradise, Mario Ouellet et al. Production of the Antimalarial Drug Precursor Artemisinic Acid in Engineered Yeast. Nature 440.7086 (2006): 940-43.

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

Posted in From the Field, Travelogue on March 6, 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.

Bursera tonkinensis_habitat1. Forest on steep slope of karst mountain in Cuc Phuong National Park.
Bursera tonkinensis habitat. Forest on steep slope of karst mountain in Cuc Phuong National Park.

In my previous post about a 3,700-mile expedition through nine provinces in Vietnam, I covered some of the interesting species of the Anacardiaceae (or sumac and cashew family) that my four colleagues and I encountered. But that was only one of the two closely related plant families for which we were searching.

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Citizen Science: Coaxing Life from Frozen Waters

Posted in Applied Science on March 2, 2015 by Madeline Breda

Madeline Breda is a GreenSchool Science Education Intern at The New York Botanical Garden.

In the Thain Family Forest
In the Thain Family Forest

“What is that?”
“What lives in there? Are they dangerous? Do they bite?”
And, loudest of all, “EWWWWWW!”

These are some of the many questions (and noises of disgust) hurled in retaliation to the dripping, mucky leaf pack I hold up at the front of the classroom. Water fresh from the Bronx River streams from the decomposing leaves into a bucket below, and an odor that could be described as either “earthy” or “gross” pervades the GreenSchool classroom. My charges for the next 90 minutes—a group of unsuspecting middle schoolers—want nothing to do with whatever is going on in that mess of organic matter. Little do they know that within minutes they’ll be clamoring to sort through the leaves and rocks and mysterious river sludge to find living treasures underneath…

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