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

Archive: June 2015

Umbrella Tree Woes: Well-known Houseplants Part Company

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on June 30, 2015 by Gregory Plunkett

Gregory M. Plunkett, Ph.D., is Director and Curator of the Cullman Program for Molecular Systematics at The New York Botanical Garden.

A Schefflera plant, shown in its native habitat on New Caledonia, an island in the South Pacific
A Schefflera plant, shown in its native habitat on New Caledonia, an island in the South Pacific

In 1912, the eminent horticulturalist Harry James Veitch helped move the Royal Horticultural Society’s Great Spring Show to the Chelsea section of London, where his family’s famous nursery firm, James Veitch & Sons, was headquartered. The show was thereafter known as the Chelsea Flower Show, an annual event that is considered the world’s most famous horticultural exhibition. But while Harry was busy running the family firm, his brother John Gould Veitch was one of a select group of Victorian explorers who traveled the world seeking new plants to bring into cultivation.

One of these plants was Aralia elegantissima, which was first introduced to the world during the Great Spring Show of 1873. Since then, it’s been called by many other names, including Dizygotheca elegantissima, Schefflera elegantissima, and Plerandra elegantissima. As the common element in those names suggests, its leaves are “most elegant,” with slender, dark-green and smartly toothed leaflets, not unlike those of Cannabis. As it turns out, wild populations of this “False Aralia” are entirely restricted to the South Pacific island of New Caledonia, where Veitch originally discovered it. Today, it’s widely cultivated as a “tropical foliage plant,” gracing shopping centers and fast-food restaurants from New York to London to Tokyo. John Veitch would be duly proud of the success of his introduction. Unfortunately, the plant has not fared as well in its native New Caledonia, where it is on the brink of extinction due to habitat loss.

Read More

The Buzz

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on June 29, 2015 by Christian Primeau

Christian Primeau is NYBG‘s Manager of the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory.

Coffea arabica
Coffea arabica

The dictionary in my office defines an alkaloid as “one of a large class of organic, nitrogen-containing ring compounds of vegetable origin and sometimes synthesized that have a bitter taste, are usually water-insoluble and alcohol-soluble, that combine with acids without the loss of a water molecule to form water-soluble hydrochlorides, hydrobromides or…”

Need I continue?

Based on this definition, you might conclude that a blog post about an alkaloid is as exhilarating as collecting paperclips. Who could blame you? But alkaloids are nothing if not incredible. Mind you, this is coming from a man who, I’m ashamed to admit, spent much of college chemistry struggling to stay awake or attempting to secure a date with the brunette in the front row (both hopeless endeavors).

I’d be willing to bet most of you love alkaloids, too…or at least one in particular. It’s okay to admit an alkaloid is on your mind the instant you wake in the morning, during that staff meeting or interminable chemistry lecture. It doesn’t make you a bad person. Better than 80% of Americans are in the same boat, because eight out of 10 Americans simply can’t live without their daily coffee. As a recent and very reluctant convert to decaf, I can attest to the fact that without caffeine (an alkaloid!) the world is a far different place. Navigating The City that Never Sleeps without caffeine is like entering a NASCAR race on a rusty tricycle with a broken wheel and no seat. Sure, it can be done—but the risks are incalculable.

Read More

Tracking a Freshwater Invader across New York and New England

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on June 23, 2015 by Robin Sleith

Robin Sleith, a Ph.D. candidate in the Commodore Matthew Perry Graduate Studies Program at The New York Botanical Garden, is researching algae under the direction of Kenneth G. Karol, Ph.D., Associate Curator in the Cullman Program for Molecular Systematics and the Botanical Garden’s specialist in algae.

Robin Sleith algae samples New York State lakes ponds invasive species
The 400 lakes surveyed in the summer of 2014
Credit: Robin Sleith
Robin Sleith starry stonewort algae Nitellopsis obtusa
The star-shaped bulbil of Nitellopsis obtusa that gives rise to it common name, starry stonewort
Credit: Robin Sleith

This summer, a team from The New York Botanical Garden will set out for the second year to document the diversity of green algae that live in hundreds of lakes in the northeastern United States and determine the distribution of an invasive freshwater alga species, Nitellopsis obtusa, or starry stonewort.

Starry stonewort, which is native to Europe and western Asia, is replacing native plant species and threatening the habitat and food sources of small fish and invertebrates in the lakes where it is found. Growing to a height of seven feet in water as deep as 30 feet, starry stonewort forms dense mats that out-compete native species.

First discovered in the St. Lawrence Seaway in 1978, it has spread at an alarming rate through the Great Lakes and into inland lakes in New York State. It is easily transported from lake to lake as plant debris caught in boat trailers.

Robin Sleith with starry stonewort (Nitellopsis obtusa). Robert Stewart
Graduate student Robin Sleith with starry stonewort (Nitellopsis obtusa). Note the setting: this alga is often found in areas of high human traffic.
Credit: Robert Stewart.

Last summer, we surveyed 400 lakes throughout New York State for starry stonewort and other green algae. Grappling hooks in hand, we traversed the state on week-long excursions, averaging 10 lakes per day. At each lake, we used the grappling hooks to gather algal specimens and also collected water-chemistry data and documented physical characteristics. There was no shortage of excitement on our journey, owing to multiple tornado warnings, many bear-sightings, and countless beautiful vistas.

We found starry stonewort in lakes across New York, from Jamestown to Potsdam, but did not find it within the boundaries of Adirondack Park. This is good news for the millions who visit the Park annually. The Adirondack region has a strong Watershed Stewardship Program, and we are partnering with this program to raise awareness about starry stonewort and the measures that can be taken—such as cleaning and fully drying boats and gear—to keep this invasive out of Adirondack lakes and ponds.

Now we are taking our grappling hooks to New England to conduct a similar survey of lakes, so stay tuned for more updates.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

As Summer Awaits, A Scientist Ponders Springtime at NYBG

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on June 18, 2015 by Gregory Plunkett

Gregory M. Plunkett, Ph.D., is Director and Curator of the Cullman Program for Molecular Systematics at The New York Botanical Garden.

Magnolia salicifolia

What a pleasure it is to stroll through The New York Botanical Garden, especially during springtime. The landscape varies from hills to low places, from exposed vistas to the isolation of the ancient Thain Family Forest. Then there are the textures: deep rich soils, jagged bark, scoured bedrock outcroppings, and wide flat lawns. And throughout this season, it has been impossible to ignore an explosion of color—carpets of yellow daffodils, spires of white magnolias and pink cherries, and the deep purples of grape hyacinths—all set against the backdrop of the vibrant spring-greens of the renewed trees and grasses. Simply amazing.

But there’s more than one way to look at the Botanical Garden and the beauty of the plant world. In part, that’s what the Garden’s scientists do every day.

To understand this better, consider what it is like to stroll through a great art museum, such as the Louvre in Paris. Like the Garden, the Louvre is filled with great treasures for the eyes. The museum itself provides the great landscape, through which we can appreciate the various textures, ranging from the hard stone of Greco-Roman statues to the soft canvases of Renaissance paintings, the pliable wood of native arts, and the smooth, rich gold of the decorative arts. And like spring in the Garden, the museum is ablaze with color. In each gallery, we can experience this variety in landscape, texture, and color on a purely aesthetic level—truly one of life’s great pleasures. 

Read More

Booked Up: A Conversation About a New Guide to an Overlooked Group of Organisms

Posted in Books: Past and Present on June 10, 2015 by Lansing Moore

Stevenson Swanson is the Garden’s Science Media Manager.

In this video, two lichenologists sit down to talk about—what else?—lichens. Or rather, a new book about lichens from the NYBG Press, Common Lichens of Northeastern North America.

This field guide “was written for the average person to learn about lichens,” co-author Troy McMullin, Ph.D., tells James Lendemer, Ph.D., Assistant Curator in the Institute of Systematic Botany at The New York Botanical Garden. “It was written in non-technical language,” he adds, noting that the book is richly illustrated with photos of all the lichen species covered in the text.

Lichens, composite organisms made up of a fungus and an alga or other photosynthesizing partner, play important roles in ecosystems and are sensitive indicators of environmental quality. And they can be quite beautiful. They have not gotten the respect or attention they deserve, according to Dr. McMullin, and one sign of that neglect is the fact that Common Lichens is the first book of its kind for lichens.

“There hasn’t been a field guide like this,” Dr. McMullin says. “If you wanted a field guide to the birds, you go to a bookstore and there’s all kinds of them, and there’s ones for mushrooms, for trees and insects, but you never see any for lichens.”

Until now. To order Common Lichens of Northeastern North America, ($39, spiral-bound hardcover), go to the NYBG Press or order from Shop in the Garden.

Lights! Camera! Algae!

Posted in Cool Scientist Tech on June 2, 2015 by Dario Cavaliere

Dario J. Cavaliere is a graduate student in the Commodore Mathew Perry Graduate Studies Program and a part-time research technician for the Cullman Program in Molecular Systematics at The New York Botanical Garden.

Nitella hyalina, freshwater algae

Meet Nitella hyalina, a freshwater alga with an especially unusual appearance. Elaborate whorls of branchlets and other three-dimensional structures make microscopic imaging of this species quite a challenge.

With advances in imaging software, N. hyalina has met its match. This software includes a stacking feature that allowed me to photograph the whole three-dimensional structure.

Check out those spiky bits! Those orange blobs are the plant’s reproductive structures, which are notoriously difficult to image. But now N. hyalina is ready for its close-up.