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

Lisa Vargues

A Taste for Adventure: Botanical Collections From a Polar Chef and Explorer

Posted in Nuggets from the Archives on June 29, 2017 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.


Amundsen Map
Map of the Gjøa’s Northwest Passage voyage, 1903–6. Courtesy of Princeton University Library.

On August 31, 1906, a small Norwegian ship, the Gjøa, edged toward the coast of Nome, Alaska, in the darkness of night. The ship’s captain and five crewmembers were thrilled when a brilliant search light beckoned to them from the shore, and Nome’s residents greeted them with enthusiastic cheers and a chorus of the Norwegian anthem. It was a tremendous moment: the 70-foot-long Gjøa had just completed the first successful voyage of a single ship and expedition through the treacherous Northwest Passage, the sailing route joining the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans along the top of North America, through the complex maze of the Arctic Archipelago.

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Audubon’s Final Journey: Botanical Relics Uncovered at NYBG

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on October 31, 2016 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.


From the 1833 portrait of John James Audubon by Henry Inman. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
From the 1833 portrait of John James Audubon by Henry Inman. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

As the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium continues to digitize its 7.8 million preserved plant specimens for online access, one of the exciting aspects of our work is the opportunity to uncover a wide variety of historical treasures. Four specimens in particular recently grabbed my attention. Based on the label data, these pressed plants, suddenly pulled from obscurity, were collected during John James Audubon’s Quadrupeds expedition.

Born in Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) in 1785, naturalist and painter Audubon moved to France during childhood and permanently to the United States as a young man. Audubon’s name has long been synonymous with beautiful and dramatic paintings of birds in their natural habitats. The 435 life-sized paintings in his published work The Birds of America (1827-38, Havell Edition) continue to be treasured for their iconic style—most notably in 2010, when a first edition of this collection sold at Sotheby’s in London for a record-breaking $11.5 million.

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An Edison Odyssey: NYBG’s Herbarium Collection Joins a New Exhibit in Florida

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on March 21, 2016 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.


The Edison Estate at the Edison and Ford Winter Estates, Fort Myers, Florida. Photo courtesy of the Edison and Ford Winter Estates.
The Edison Estate at the Edison and Ford Winter Estates, Fort Myers, Florida. Photo courtesy of the Edison and Ford Winter Estates.

Edison and Rubber: A Scientific Quest, a new permanent exhibit at the Edison and Ford Winter Estates in Fort Myers, Florida, is a multi-faceted exploration of inventor Thomas Edison’s major final research project on domestic rubber. Both the exhibit and the 20-plus-acre site present a fascinating blend of history, science, botany, and innovation. The New York Botanical Garden, which is historically connected to the Estates through Edison’s rubber research, has gladly joined this interactive exhibit with a display of recently discovered herbarium materials.

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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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Rockefeller Center: Botanical History Underfoot

Posted in Nuggets from the Archives on July 11, 2014 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 and writing for the NYBG Press.


While admiring Rockefeller Center’s renowned attractions, such as the famous 1934 gilded sculpture of Prometheus, it is easy to miss an inconspicuous reminder of the site’s importance in American botanical history. Looking toward the middle of Rockefeller Center’s Channel Gardens, directly behind a bronze sculpture of a sea nymph riding a fish, you will find the following plaque:

Hosack Plaque

The land now occupied by Rockefeller Center was once the location of the Elgin Botanic Garden, the first botanical garden in New York State and one of the earliest in the United States. It was established by Dr. David Hosack in 1801 and is often referred to as a forerunner of The New York Botanical Garden. Dr. Hosack, who tended Alexander Hamilton’s fatal wound following his duel with Aaron Burr, was a highly regarded physician and Columbia College professor of botany and materia medica. He created the Elgin Botanic Garden, named after his father’s birthplace in Scotland, primarily to teach his students botany and the medicinal properties of plants.

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Flashes in the Twilight

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on December 30, 2013 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 for the C. V. Starr Virtual Herbarium, with a focus on the West Indies, the Amazon Basin, and historical specimens from the United States, Canada, and Mexico.


Lisa Stina (Photo by Tommy Westberg)
Lisa Stina (Photo by Tommy Westberg)

One evening as twilight settled over the garden of Hammarby, an idyllic farm near Uppsala in Sweden, a botanically inclined young lady noticed flashes of light emanating from her family’s nasturtium flowers (Tropaeolum majus, commonly known as Indian cress, or indiankrasse in Swedish). Intrigued by this phenomenon, she wrote a paper about it, which was published by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in 1762, when she was 19. Her name was Elisabeth Christina von Linné, and she was a daughter of the preeminent scientist Carl Linnaeus (also known as Carl von Linné), who devised the system for naming species that scientists use to this day.

As a woman, Lisa Stina (as she was known) was not permitted to have formal schooling, but she developed a great interest in botany, which her father supported. The mystery of the “flashing flowers” came to be known as the “Elizabeth Linnaeus Phenomenon,” which some believed to be caused by phosphorescence or electricity. Professor F. A. W. Thomas of Germany, however, explained in a 1914 paper that the phenomenon is optical, a result of the way our eyes perceive the flowers’ colors in the twilight.

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In Search of Thomas Edison’s Botanical Treasures

Posted in Applied Science on October 30, 2013 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 for the C. V. Starr Virtual Herbarium, with a focus on the West Indies, the Amazon Basin, and historical specimens from the United States, Canada, and Mexico.


Solidago edisoniana, a goldenrod specimen named in Thomas Edison's honor.
Solidago edisoniana, a goldenrod specimen named in Thomas Edison’s honor.

The quiet corridors of the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium here at The New York Botanical Garden are lined with steel cabinets where preserved plant specimens are stored for scientific study, but they are also a treasure trove of history, filled with stories waiting to be told.

One of those stories came to light recently when I set out to determine whether any traces remained in the Steere Herbarium of a significant but little-known research project that involved one of America’s most famous inventors—Thomas Alva Edison.

In the late 1920s, Edison was on a quest for plants that could be grown locally, quickly, and economically to produce latex and provide America with a domestic source of rubber. At the time, the country was dependent on imported rubber for such important products as automobile tires, and Edison and his friends Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone were concerned that an international crisis such as a war could cut off that supply. In 1927, they formed the Edison Botanic Research Corporation in Fort Myers, Florida, and Edison enlisted crews to collect plant specimens throughout the United States, particularly in the South.

Edison’s quest brought him to the Botanical Garden to conduct botanical research in collaboration with the Garden’s Head Curator, John Kunkel Small. At one point the inventor who perfected the light bulb even had a small laboratory in the grand Beaux-Arts building that now houses The LuEsther T. Mertz Library. Tests concluded that the goldenrod (in the plant genus Solidago) contained the most promising amount of latex.

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