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

Archive: July 2015

Cuba Conference: Aiming For a New Model of Sustainable and Equitable Development

Posted in Travelogue on July 29, 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. The flora of Cuba is one of his research specialties.

The title of this post reflects the overarching theme of an international conference on the environment and development that was held recently in Havana, Cuba. I attended as a delegate from The New York Botanical Garden, making a presentation on novel methods to accelerate the conservation assessment of plant species so that plants can figure more centrally in the designation of new Key Biodiversity Areas (KBAs). I will write about these methods and KBAs later. For now, I wanted to report on the palpable energy and enthusiasm, both in tone and substance, for the diverse topics and perspectives on display in Havana during the week.


This conference played out against the backdrop of a new era in the relationship between Cuba and the U.S., with a great many new implications for development and the environment in Cuba. The conference’s highlighting of development as a process that should be sustainable and equitable refers to the need for development to be fair for both developed and less developed nations. Hundreds of delegates from some two dozen countries made presentations and engaged in debates on more than a dozen themes such as protected natural areas, biodiversity and management of ecosystems, environmental justice, environmental education, natural history museums, and climate change. The Spanish program of the conference and the abstracts of presentations can be accessed here.

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Every Bush Has a Use, Every Bush Has a Meaning

Posted in Travelogue on July 20, 2015 by Ina Vandebroek

Ina Vandebroek, Ph.D., is the Matthew Calbraith Perry Assistant Curator of Economic Botany and Director of the Caribbean Program at The New York Botanical Garden. An ethnomedical research specialist, she studies people’s cultural knowledge, beliefs, and practices related to traditional medicine.

Portland Parrish
A walk in the close surroundings of the community, showing the green beauty of Portland parish.

It was my last interview during one of my ethnobotanical field trips to a farming community in the lush northeast parish of Portland in Jamaica. I sat on the porch of the home of Faye, a female farmer, while the sun was setting behind the beautiful John Crow Mountains that surround the community. We looked at a set of pictures on my laptop. They were photos of plants growing in and around the community. For each one, I asked Faye if she knew the plant’s local name (or names) and its cultural uses, especially for healthcare. In rural Jamaica, people still rely greatly on wild plants (or, as they say in Jamaican patois, “bush”). They use many of these plants to treat ill health or enjoy them as a cup of tea in the morning to stay strong and energized.

Interviewing people is a standard method in ethnobotanical research. Through individual interviews with several people in the community who self-medicate with “bush medicines,” I am hoping to develop a database of locally useful plants and to understand the myriad of ways in which these plants are used. I am also trying to find out which bush plants people know best, and who is especially knowledgeable about them. These data can be used to compare culturally important plants and popularly known medicinal uses for them across several Caribbean countries. The ultimate goal is to give back that information to the community, so that these precious oral traditions do not disappear.

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Shaggy Ink Cap: A Mushroom that Can Clean Up a Mess

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on July 9, 2015 by Maya Jaffe

Maya Jaffe graduated from Florida International University and has had an internship at the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium, where she has worked on a project to digitize macrofungi, the largest types of fungi, including mushrooms.

[Illustration by Geo. E. Morris (1906), property of NYBG]

I sit behind drawn curtains in a dark room, illuminated only by light tents that are used for taking pictures. It’s another day on the job as an intern in the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium, where I am helping in an effort to digitize the New York Botanical Garden’s macrofungi. As I make my way alphabetically through the Agaricaceae family, I come across a shaggy ink cap specimen, Coprinus comatus, with a beautiful illustration.

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