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

Archive: May 2015

Honoring a Musical Legend of the Southern Appalachians

Posted in New Plant Discoveries on May 27, 2015 by Science Talk

Jessica L. Allen is a graduate student in the Commodore Mathew Perry Graduate Studies Program, and James C. Lendemer, Ph.D., is an Assistant Curator at the Institute of Systematic Botany, both at The New York Botanical Garden. Lichens are their primary research interest.

Japewiella dollypartoniana lichen Dolly Parton
Japewiella dollypartoniana

Atop Hangover Mountain in the Unicoi Mountains along the North Carolina-Tennessee border, we recently discovered a population of lichens that were in fruit and were excited to realize that they were a new species. Another native gem had been added to the flora of North America.

But what to name the new species?  As we contemplated that question, we sat down to eat our lunch and take in the sweeping views of the nearby Smokies.

When most people think of native plants and animals, images of familiar flowers and songbirds probably come to mind. But largely overlooked are the thousands of lichen species that make their homes in our own backyards. Lichens are fungi that have evolved unique relationships with algae for the purpose of obtaining nutrition.

Indeed fungi that have adopted this lifestyle play crucial roles in keeping our natural landscapes healthy. They also form spectacular growths on trees, rocks and soil from the highest mountains to the lowest and harshest deserts. Scientists at The New York Botanical Garden have discovered new species of lichens throughout eastern North America steadily over the last 50 years, with no end in sight.

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Google’s Eric Schmidt & Sloan Foundation’s Doron Weber on NYBG and World Flora Online

Posted in Events on May 19, 2015 by Stevenson Swanson

Thirty-Fourth Annual Founders Corporate DinnerAt the recent 34th annual Founders Corporate Dinner, The New York Botanical Garden saluted two generous funders—Google Inc. and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation—for their support of NYBG’s leading role in World Flora Online (WFO), a global project to create the definitive online scientific resource about plants.

NYBG Board member Sigourney Weaver presented the Garden’s Founders Award to Eric Schmidt, Google’s Executive Chairman, in appreciation of Google’s major financial and technical support for the Garden’s work on WFO.

In accepting the award, Schmidt said WFO would be “open, free, and available forever” and called it “a genuine sea change. All of us at Google love this partnership!”

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Here Comes The Sun Science Club: Sunny Thoughts from an NYBG Botanist

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

Stevenson Swanson is the Garden’s Science Media Manager.

Perennial Garden New York Botanical Garden
What does the sun do? That question was posed recently by Science Friday, the incomparable science news program that airs on public radio stations nationwide. To kick off its latest Science Club education activity, the program asked a number of scientists and solar experts for their thoughts about why the sun matters.

As you might imagine, how you think about the sun depends largely on what you do. Ernest Moniz, the U. S. Secretary of Energy, talked about the sun as a source of energy. A psychiatrist talked about the sun’s influence on our mood.

What about a botanist? The program asked Barbara A. Ambrose, Ph.D., who is Cullman Associate Curator for Plant Genomics at The New York Botanical Garden, to ponder the role of the sun in the world of plants. Here’s her thought-provoking answer:

What does the sun do?

The sun provides energy. Plants transform the sun’s energy into stored chemical energy during photosynthesis. This is an amazing process in which plants take carbon dioxide, water, and the sun’s photons and produce carbohydrates and oxygen. These carbohydrates are the stored chemical energy that allows plants to grow and develop into the food we eat and the flowers we enjoy. Plants have evolved for hundreds of millions of years to harness the energy of the sun efficiently and effectively, something we humans have yet to perfect. What’s really cool is that a byproduct of this reaction is oxygen–the air we need to breathe.

You can read the responses of other experts, as well as hear Dr. Ambrose read her explanation, at the Science Friday site here. You can also share your own thoughts on that page’s comments section or in our comments box.

And if you talk about this with your friends, just remember: the oxygen you’re using to speak came from a sunbeam striking a leaf.

Breakfast in a Blast: The Invention of Puffed Cereal at NYBG

Posted in Nuggets from the Archives on May 8, 2015 by Lisa Vargues

Lisa Vargues is a Curatorial Assistant at The New York Botanical Garden’s William and Lynda Steere Herbarium. Her work includes digitizing plant specimens, historical and new, from around the world for the C. V. Starr Virtual Herbarium.

puffed rice cereal
Bowl of puffed rice image courtesy of Lisa Vargues.

In December 1901, Nathaniel Lord Britton, the New York Botanical Garden’s Director, reportedly (and understandably) appeared to be a little worried when a succession of blasts, sounding like gunshots, erupted from a third-floor lab in what is now the Library building. Thankfully, nothing was amiss. Botanist Alexander Pierce Anderson was immersed in a successful experiment that would not only prove a scientific theory but also transform breakfast for millions of people.

With suitable precautions, Anderson had used a hammer to crack open hermetically sealed and heated glass tubes, each containing corn starch, wheat flour, and, later, rice and other grains. All of the starch particles in the tubes had exploded, proving the theory, proposed by plant physiologist Dr. Heinrich Meyer, that a starch granule contains a miniscule amount of condensed water within its nucleus.

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A Kudzu Impersonator Lining New York-area Roads

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on May 1, 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.

Ampelopsis Green VeilIf you have noticed a plant forming a green veil over utility poles or vegetation along roads and parkways in the New York metropolitan area, you probably thought that it was the notorious kudzu vine, a member of the pea family that has been well publicized as a fast-growing invasive plant.

Although kudzu has been reported in New York, it is not the invasive plant found along the Saw Mill River Parkway and other roadways. This plant is a member of the grape family (Vitaceae) and is called the porcelain berry (Ampelopsis brevipedunculata) because of its beautifully colored fruits. These two invasive plants can be distinguished from one another by the porcelain berry’s simple, lobed leaves; presence of delicate tendrils; small greenish flowers; and berry fruits. By contrast, kudzu has compound leaves (a leaf divided into separate leaflets); robust tendrils; larger, pea-like flowers; and legume fruits resembling peapods.

The porcelain berry, introduced from Asia as an ornamental plant, escaped from cultivation and has become one of the worst invasive plants in our area. The veil of green that it produces deprives all other plants of sunlight, water, and nutrients.

In early spring the porcelain berry appears as a massive tangle of stems, sprawling over low vegetation along the roadside and up into trees. The plant’s tendrils facilitate its climb into tree tops. The flowers produce abundant nectar that attracts swarms of small bees, wasps, and other insects, thereby facilitating the production of fruits.

The plant’s fruits are small, spherical berries with a pulp surrounding the seeds. They are multicolored, ranging from white to lavender to blue, with dark spots adorning their outer surfaces. The fruits are consumed by animals, especially birds, which disperse their seeds into new areas. Currently, the leaves have not yet flushed out, so it is possible to see that few, if any, other plants are able to compete with the porcelain berry.

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The accompanying images show the stages that the porcelain berry goes through during the year. The first image shows how the porcelain berry looks now. To limit this invasive from invading new habitats, do not cultivate it and pull out any young plants that you encounter! Once the porcelain berry becomes established, it is extremely difficult to eradicate.

For information about another invasive plant that is currently flushing new leaves, click on Japanese barberry.