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

Science Talk

“Message Plants” in the Communications Age

Posted in From the Field on November 22, 2017 by Science Talk

Gregory M. Plunkett, Ph.D., is Director and Curator of the Cullman Program for Molecular Systematics at The New York Botanical Garden and Michael J. Balick, Ph.D., is Vice President for Botanical Science and Director and Philecology Curator of the Botanical Garden’s Institute of Economic Botany.


The team learns about plant uses
The team learns about plant uses.

The people of Vanuatu, an island group in the South Pacific Ocean, have a rich cultural history and intense desire to maintain these cultural practices as living traditions, enshrined in the concept of kastom. However, preserving kastom can be a great challenge in a rapidly changing and globalizing world. We initiated a biocultural conservation program in Vanuatu’s southernmost islands, the area known as Tafea Province, aimed at understanding the area’s plant and fungal biodiversity and its local uses, both traditional and modern. This initiative is helping to conserve biodiversity resources and support cultural practices in this remote part of the world.

To begin the project, we held extensive meetings with community members to gauge their interest in participating in the documentation of plants and plant uses. In many areas, we saw signs of rapid erosion of such knowledge, where grandparents knew the traditional information, but their children and even more so their grandchildren had experienced a growing alienation from the natural world, especially as they became more dependent on modern approaches to life.

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A New Era for Collaboration with Cuba

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on October 25, 2017 by Science Talk

Brian M. Boom, Ph.D., is Vice President for Conservation Strategy and Bassett Maguire Curator of Botany at The New York Botanical Garden. Ina Vandebroek, Ph.D., is NYBG’s Matthew Calbraith Perry Assistant Curator of Economic Botany and Director of the Caribbean Program.


Photo of Long and Monterrey
Gregory Long, NYBG’s CEO and The William C. Steere Sr. President, and Nora Monterrey, General Director of Cuba’s National Botanical Garden. The two institutions recently signed a new Memorandum of Understanding.

The New York Botanical Garden and Cuba’s National Botanical Garden (Jardín Botánico Nacional, or JBN) have a history of collaboration that spans no less than five decades on numerous specific plant research and conservation initiatives. Science Talk has chronicled some of the more recent ones here, here, and here.

Earlier this month, Nora Monterrey, JBN’s General Director, and Alejandro Palmarola, Head of Conservation Program at JBN, visited NYBG to launch an exciting new era for collaboration between our two institutions. The discussions about this renewed commitment for collaboration began in Havana in July 2015, when one of us (Brian) went to Cuba to meet Nora as the new General Director of JBN and to discuss how our institutions could best join forces on cutting-edge science or conservation projects.

However, in a visionary move, Nora Monterrey proposed to take our collaboration to the next level. Instead of a specific agreement for a specific collaborative project, she envisioned establishing a wide-reaching umbrella agreement, spanning multiple years. This approach, which is laid out in a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), will promote all sorts of collaborative initiatives between our institutions–not only science and conservation but also other programmatic areas such as education, horticulture, and exhibitions, as well as support areas, such as marketing, outreach, and sustainable tourism.

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Botanists Boosted: NYBG’s Successful Wikipedia Edit-A-Thon

Posted in Nuggets from the Archives on August 12, 2016 by Science Talk

Samantha D’Acunto is the Reference Librarian at The New York Botanical Garden‘s LuEsther T. Mertz Library, where she regularly assists researchers on projects ranging from the history of science to botany, art, and landscape history. Esther Jackson is the Public Services Librarian at the Mertz Library, where she manages Reference and Circulation services and oversees the Plant Information Office.


LuEsther T. Mertz Library

The LuEsther T. Mertz Library of The New York Botanical Garden welcomed Wikipedia editors from the New York City area recently for a five-hour session of research, writing, and editing dedicated to creating and enhancing articles about botanists who have made significant collections of plant specimens in New York State.

For several years, Mertz Library staff members have discussed the idea of creating Wikipedia pages for botanists as a way of making use of the rich information contained in one of the library’s unique special collections known as the Vertical File. Among other things, the Vertical File holds especially interesting biographical materials such as photographs, newspaper articles, magazine clippings, brochures, and other ephemera about botanists, horticulturists, and agriculturalists. Many of the individuals represented in the Vertical File were at one time affiliated with the Botanical Garden or were professionally active in the state of New York. Therefore, hosting an edit-a-thon focused on creating Wikipedia articles for botanists who have made significant collections in the state of New York seemed like a logical choice.

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In Search of Fumewort at Garth Woods, We Found Something Better

Posted in From the Field on July 7, 2016 by Science Talk

Laura Booth and Zihao Wang are Forest Interns at The New York Botanical Garden.


Abundant and diverse herbaceous layer in Garth Woods
Abundant and diverse herbaceous layer in Garth Woods

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.

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WeDigBio: Bringing Biological Collections to the World

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on November 20, 2015 by Science Talk

Mari A. Roberts is a Volunteer Coordinator at The New York Botanical Garden’s William and Lynda Steere Herbarium. Her work focuses on engaging citizen scientists in the digitization of plant specimens.


wedigbioDid you know that you can volunteer on a global initiative right here at The New York Botanical Garden? That’s what happened last month when 15 volunteers participated in the Worldwide Engagement for Digitizing Biocollections (WeDigBio), making information on biodiversity collections—such as pressed plants, pinned insects, and aquatic species in jars—available online.

WeDigBio was a one-of-a-kind event engaging hundreds of volunteers to transcribe specimens at more than 30 institutions via multiple transcription platforms (DigiVolHebaria @ HomeLes HerbonautesNotes from NatureSmithsonian Institution’s Transcription Center and Symbiota). One goal of WeDigBio was to increase awareness of the importance of biodiversity collections and of making them easily available online to researchers worldwide. Thanks to WeDigBio volunteers at The New York Botanical Garden, The National Museum of Natural History, Australian Museum, Florida State University and dozens of other institutions, data on more than 31,000 biological specimens will be available for researchers, graduate students and even citizen scientists!

Biodiversity collections held in universities, natural history museums and herbaria are physical representations of our planet’s life forms and biological processes. Plant specimens are collected in the field and then stored in a herbarium, where they can remain for hundreds of years. However, collections are not easily accessible to the general public, nor are there digital representations of every specimen.

“Never has it been more important for museums to open their specimen cabinet doors to the public,” says Austin Mast, a WeDigBio organizer and Associate Professor of Biological Science at Florida State University. “Everyone should have the chance to see the rich textures of life on Earth in these collections. Public participation of this sort helps science bring those rich textures into sharper focus.”

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The William and Lynda Steere Herbarium at the Botanical Garden is one of 3,400 herbaria in the world and holds 7.8 million specimens that are used by Garden scientists and visiting researchers. To digitize our collections—that is, cataloging them, imaging specimens, and transcribing specimen information—staff and volunteers work on multi-institutional grant-funded projects to target specific areas of the Steere Herbarium’s collections.

For WeDigBio, Garden volunteers captured information about the historical who, what, when, and where of 500 specimens of bryophytes (mosses and their relatives). Bryophytes are model organisms for documenting environmental change because they take up atmospheric nutrients in their environment. By studying these sensitive indicators in historic and recent collections, scientists can address research questions concerning the change in species distributions after man-made environmental events such as climate change, air pollution, and habitat destruction.

wedigbio-6

Interested in volunteering? You don’t have to wait until WeDigBio 2016! There are opportunities in the Steere Herbarium year round. Help us discover vital information in our rich collection of plant specimens and contribute to our cause of preserving biodiversity.

For volunteer opportunities in the Herbarium, contact Mari Roberts at mroberts@nybg.org.

New Jersey Transplants “Lichen” Their New Home

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on October 23, 2015 by Science Talk

Jessica L. Allen is a graduate student in the Commodore Matthew Perry Graduate Studies Program, and James C. Lendemer, Ph.D., is an Assistant Curator in the Institute of Systematic Botany, both at The New York Botanical Garden. Lichens are their primary research interest.


Old man’s beard (Usnea strigosa) on the trunk of an oak tree.
Old man’s beard (Usnea strigosa) on the trunk of an oak tree.

In April, two species of lichens made their way from the Rutgers Field Station in New Jersey to the Thain Family Forest here at The New York Botanical Garden. You might be wondering how they are faring six months later. We took a walk into the forest recently to check in on them.

They’re still alive! A number of them, however, have mysteriously disappeared.

The old man’s beard (Usnea strigosa) hanging on the branches are healthier than those that were attached directly to the trunk of the tree. The reindeer lichen (Cladonia subtenuis) that were nestled deeply into the leaf litter are healthiest, though animals disturbed some of these lichens and they are now fragmented across the ground. About 20 percent of the transplanted lichens are nowhere to be seen. They were likely taken by birds and squirrels living in the forest to be added to their nests.

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Mission Possible: NYBG Scientists Boost Conservation of Fungi

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on August 11, 2015 by Science Talk

Jessica L. Allen is a graduate student in the Commodore Matthew Perry Graduate Studies Program, and James C. Lendemer, Ph.D., is an Assistant Curator at the Institute of Systematic Botany, both at The New York Botanical Garden. Lichens, which include a fungal component, are their primary research interest.


Healthy community of diverse lichens growing on a mature Fraser fir that remains alive.
Healthy community of diverse lichens growing on a mature Fraser fir that remains alive.

Every day, thousands of fungal species throughout the United States perform essential jobs all around us for free. They are vast networks, above and below ground, that facilitate nutrient transportation, form soil, provide natural fertilizers, and add delightful variety to our diets. If fungi went on strike, everybody would notice.

In the United States approximately 10 percent of fish and mammals are protected by the Endangered Species Act, including such American icons as the bald eagle and the American paddlefish. Yet fungi, which constitute an entire kingdom in the scientific classification of species, are effectively excluded from the dialogue. Of the nearly 40,000 known fungal species in North America, only two are protected by the Endangered Species Act!

Is it because we know so little Are there no threats to fungi? Are fungi immune to the threats posed to plants and animals? As is outlined in a recent issue of Endangered Species Research, the answer to all of these questions is a definite “No.”

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Honoring a Musical Legend of the Southern Appalachians

Posted in New Plant Discoveries on May 27, 2015 by Science Talk

Jessica L. Allen is a graduate student in the Commodore Mathew Perry Graduate Studies Program, and James C. Lendemer, Ph.D., is an Assistant Curator at the Institute of Systematic Botany, both at The New York Botanical Garden. Lichens are their primary research interest.


Japewiella dollypartoniana lichen Dolly Parton
Japewiella dollypartoniana

Atop Hangover Mountain in the Unicoi Mountains along the North Carolina-Tennessee border, we recently discovered a population of lichens that were in fruit and were excited to realize that they were a new species. Another native gem had been added to the flora of North America.

But what to name the new species?  As we contemplated that question, we sat down to eat our lunch and take in the sweeping views of the nearby Smokies.

When most people think of native plants and animals, images of familiar flowers and songbirds probably come to mind. But largely overlooked are the thousands of lichen species that make their homes in our own backyards. Lichens are fungi that have evolved unique relationships with algae for the purpose of obtaining nutrition.

Indeed fungi that have adopted this lifestyle play crucial roles in keeping our natural landscapes healthy. They also form spectacular growths on trees, rocks and soil from the highest mountains to the lowest and harshest deserts. Scientists at The New York Botanical Garden have discovered new species of lichens throughout eastern North America steadily over the last 50 years, with no end in sight.

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Transplants: New Jersey Lichens Find New Home at NYBG

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on April 30, 2015 by Science Talk

Jessica L. Allen is a graduate student at the Commodore Mathew Perry Graduate Studies Program, and James C. Lendemer, Ph.D., is an Assistant Curator at the Institute of Systematic Botany, both at The New York Botanical Garden. Lichens are their primary research interest.


This composite image shows, on the left,  a lichen-covered tree in a healthy forest in the Black Mountains of North Carolina and, on the right, how most trees in New York City look.
This composite image shows, on the left, a lichen-covered tree in a healthy forest in the Black Mountains of North Carolina and, on the right, how most trees in New York City look.

Most trees and rocks in New York City look naked, while trees in wilder parts of the United States wear a vibrant, colorful coat. What causes that? It’s because after centuries of changes to the environment, many lichens have been pushed from our urban or suburban landscapes and into the wilderness.

Lichens are fungi that, in addition to forming beautiful mosaics on trees and rocks, are critical to maintaining healthy environments. Unfortunately they are also extremely sensitive to air pollution and disturbance. That is why if you grew up in New York, and many other cities, you might think that bare trees and rocks are normal.

The good news is that, like the oysters that are slowly returning to New York harbor, there are more lichens in New York City now than there were 30 years ago. Yet there are still hundreds of species that were once found in the metropolitan area and are no longer here. We decided to investigate whether or not more lichens could survive in the city if we just gave them a little help getting here.

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