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

Douglas Daly

Welcome to the Family

Posted in New Plant Discoveries on October 2, 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.


1015-Daly-blog_Rio-Japiim-2007_1200x900
During this 2007 expedition on Brazil’s Rio Japiim, researchers collected a plant that was recently identified as a new discovery for that country.

trunk-1200x800Brazil, welcome to the Lepidobotryaceae.

The story of how this oddball plant family was found in Brazil for the first time is a perfect example of what could be called turbo-botany. It combines a tightly connected international network of taxonomic specialists, agile and constantly refreshed databases, a globally comprehensive herbarium, and digital imaging—all hinging on collecting plants in the field and getting the specimens in front of experienced eyes.

The plant at the center of this story was collected during a rapid flora survey of an area that was being considered for conservation as a state reserve in northwestern Acre, a state in western Brazil. Acre was the main geographic focus of my research for 25 years, in collaboration with colleagues at the Federal University of Acre. The project culminated in an analytical catalogue of 4,000 species, the first of its kind in that region. Just as important, it provided training for quite a few young Brazilian botanists.

Read More

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.

Read More

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

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on February 27, 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.


Habitat of Pentaspadon poilanei on Tien Du Mountain, near Nha Trang City, Khanh Hoa Province.
Habitat of Pentaspadon poilanei on Tien Du Mountain, near Nha Trang City, Khanh Hoa Province

Vietnam is home to a number of species of trees in two closely related plant families, the sumac or cashew family (Anacardiaceae) and the frankincense and myrrh family (Burseraceae), but for decades, many of these species were poorly known and had never been sampled for leaf material for obtaining DNA sequences that would help resolve their evolutionary relationships and contribute to informed decisions aimed at conserving them in the wild.

I was part of a team of five botanists—two from Vietnam and three from The New York Botanical Garden—who conducted a joint expedition in April and May of 2010 in search of trees belonging to these two important plant families. Drs. Le Dong Tan and Nguyen The Cuong represented the Vietnam Academy of Science and Technology/Institute of Ecology and Biological Resources, and the Botanical Garden was represented by Dr. Susan Pell, John Mitchell, and me.

Read More

Discovering New Plant Species in the Field—and in the Herbarium, Part Three

Posted in New Plant Discoveries on December 19, 2014 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. Read Part One and Part Two of this series for more information.


This Central American rain forest is one of only two places where Dacryodes patrona, a new tree species described by Dr. Daly, has been found.
This Central American rain forest is one of only two places where Dacryodes patrona, a new tree species described by Dr. Daly, has been found.

In the first post in this series about the process of discovering and describing new plant species, I noted that the average lag time from when a new species is first collected in the field to when its name and description are published is a shocking 35 years. After publication, new species often languish in the herbarium and scientific journals, even if the information they represent has important conservation value. But sometimes we beat these odds by publishing new species in a relatively short time, and having the results makes a difference.

Read More

Discovering New Plant Species in the Field—and in the Herbarium, Part Two

Posted in New Plant Discoveries on December 12, 2014 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.


The oil-rich fruit of the newly described species Dacryodes urut-kunchae attracts many game animals. (Photo: David Neill)
The oil-rich fruit of the newly described species Dacryodes urut-kunchae attracts many game animals. (Photo: David Neill)

When plant scientists discover new species—as I discussed in the first post of this series—their discovery is often an extremely rare plant, and frequently the specimens they see are incomplete. For example, there might be fruits but no flowers, and we have to search for more specimens or wait for other scientists to send us more examples before we can thoroughly describe and publish a species as new. But when a region is first explored botanically, sometimes we are amazed to find that a conspicuous member of the plant community has no name.

Read More

Discovering New Plant Species in the Field—and in the Herbarium, Part One

Posted in New Plant Discoveries on December 4, 2014 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.


A Central American rain forest that is home to a rare plant species recently described by Dr. Daly
A Central American rain forest that is home to a rare plant species recently described by Dr. Daly

Plant scientists discover and publish about 1,850 new species each year worldwide. That pace has not changed much since 1970, meaning that, although we have already described about 350,000 plant species, we still have a steep “learning curve” and a very long way to go before we come close to documenting all the world’s species of plants.

In this series of posts, I’ll describe some of the challenges that plant taxonomists face in their quest to discover new species. I’ll also explain why that work is so important in the effort to conserve plant life on Earth, using two recent examples from my own work in the genus Dacryodes, a group of about 60 related species of tropical trees.

Read More