Stevenson Swanson is the Science Media Manager at The New York Botanical Garden.
Ah, New York in the summer. So many fetid fragrances fill the air. The garbage on the sidewalk, the hot blast of exhaust from a passing bus, the dank odor of the subway—these and even less savory sources best left to the imagination all add their odors to the city’s atmosphere on a hot, humid day.
That makes it all the more remarkable that thousands of New Yorkers have flocked to The New York Botanical Garden to see the corpse flower that is now blooming in the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory. Apart from its size and striking appearance, the plant is notable for its stench, often compared to the smell of rotting flesh, which is the clever ploy it has evolved to attract pollinators.
Perhaps the fact that the plant blooms so infrequently and unpredictably draws most people, but many seem fascinated by the phenomenon that something in nature would smell this bad on purpose.
Like other scientific research and educational institutions across the country, The New York Botanical Garden has seen increased enrollment in its Master’s programs in recent years as more graduate students pursue non-Ph.D. advanced degrees in the sciences. While many Ph.D. students seek careers in research and academia, Master’s students are more often looking for training opportunities to prepare them for careers in business, industry, nonprofit organizations, and government agencies.
To ensure that we continue to offer a broad range of opportunities to graduate students in the plant sciences, we have responded to this demand by providing Master’s thesis opportunities to students through our affiliated universities. Yale University’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies offers four Master’s degrees, as does New York University, including one focused on bioinformatics and systems biology, which is very relevant for students who want to gain expertise in biodiversity-related data management. Lehman College and City College of New York—both part of the City University of New York system—offer Master’s programs in biology. Columbia University confers a Master’s in conservation biology, while Fordham University has a Master’s in ecology.
On a steamy day in late May, a crew of invasive species scouts assembled in the parking lot of the Garth Woods Apartments in Scarsdale, Westchester County. Our mission? To survey Garth Woods, a sliver of intact riparian forest, for Corydalis incisa, also called incised fumewort or purple keman. Much to our excitement, this case of sleuthing had a happy ending: for now, Garth Woods shows no sign of C. incisa, and full to the brim with uncommon native herbs that were a joy to see.
C. incisa, which is native to Asia, is an emerging invasive along the Bronx River; it was first recorded in the New York metropolitan region during the Bronx Park BioBlitz in 2005, and has subsequently been observed along the riverbanks of the Bronx River in The New York Botanical Garden and in several sites in Westchester County.
Watching some fireworks, going to the local parade, grilling burgers and hot dogs, maybe even finding time for a nap. Sounds like a classic Fourth of July. Collecting plant specimens is notably missing from this list. And yet, for botanists, our nation’s birthday is not necessarily a day off.
A search of the C. V. Starr Virtual Herbarium, where The New York Botanical Garden’s digitized herbarium specimens are made available online to researchers and the public, reveals that it includes no fewer than 6,808 specimens that were collected on a Fourth of July. They come from around the world, but more than 1,000 were snipped or dug up in the United States on Independence Day. They eventually found their way to the Botanical Garden’s William and Lynda Steere Herbarium, where they are now part of the 7.8 million specimens that are preserved there and are now being digitized for the Starr Virtual Herbarium.