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

Science Talk

Traditional Shelters, Cyclone Houses, and the Temptations of Modern Construction

Posted in From the Field on September 18, 2018 by Science Talk

Gregory M. Plunkett, Ph.D., is Director and Curator of The New York Botanical Garden’s Cullman Program for Molecular Systematics, 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.


Marie Ken Matai and Kating Ken Matai demonstrate the elements of traditional roof design (Nusemetu, North Tanna).

In Port-Vila and Luganville—Vanuatu’s two largest cities—most people live in buildings that are made in much the same way as those found in New York, Paris, or Sydney. But across most of Vanuatu, the great majority of people still live in small villages, and it is in these areas that we see the wisdom of traditional approaches to building houses. The advantages of these techniques—and the potential lessons for other areas that suffer increasingly from severe tropical weather—may be especially timely in light of Hurricane Florence, which has buffeted North and South Carolina with high winds and heavy rains.

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Indian Pipes: The Parasitic Plants in Bloom at The New York Botanical Garden

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on September 4, 2018 by Science Talk

Ashley Keesling is a graduate student at The Ohio State University who recently conducted a research visit to The New York Botanical Garden.


Indian pipes at Clear Creek Metro Park in Hocking County, Ohio
Indian pipes at Clear Creek Metro Park in Hocking County, Ohio

Intriguing and ethereal, Indian pipes (Monotropa uniflora) are often mistaken for fungi because of their pale, otherworldly appearance. Also known as ghost plants, they typically occur in well-established forests and are often thought of as indicators of healthy ecosystems—not the kind of plant you might think would grow in a dense urban area. However, pockets of preserved forests in New York City, such as the old-growth Thain Family Forest at The New York Botanical Garden, can allow species to flourish in unexpected places.

I came to the heart of the Bronx recently to hunt for Indian pipes in the Thain Forest as part of the research I am conducting for my master’s thesis at The Ohio State University.

These fascinating parasitic plants have been the subject of much interest over the years, including research by an early 20th Century NYBG scientist. Indian pipes are unusual in that they do not photosynthesize. Instead, they are mycoheterotrophic, meaning they obtain nutrients by parasitizing a type of fungi that associate with plant roots. These mycorrhizal fungi help the plants take up water and nutrients that might otherwise be inaccessible to the plants. In exchange, the plants provide the fungi with sugars created from the process of photosynthesis. Indian pipes take advantage of the relationship between another plant and its associated fungus and “steal” sugars from the fungus. This three-part symbiosis allows Indian pipes to ultimately get their nutrients from a photosynthetic plant through the means of a mycorrhizal fungi.

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NYBG Scientist and Co-Author Receive the Society of Economic Botany’s 2018 Klinger Book Award

Posted in Book on July 3, 2018 by Science Talk

Messages from the GodsMessages from the Gods: A Guide to the Useful Plants of Belize, by NYBG’s Michael Balick, Ph.D., and Rosita Arvigo, D.N., is the winner of the 2018 Mary W. Klinger Book Award, which is given annually to an outstanding book in the fields of economic botany and ethnobotany.

The culmination of a research project that began in 1987, Messages from the Gods is both a cultural study and a specialized field guide, with information about native and introduced plants in Belize and their traditional and contemporary uses as sources of food, medicine, and fiber and in spiritual practices, among many other purposes. The Society of Economic Botany—the preeminent professional association of researchers who study the relationships among plants, people, and culture, which presents the annual Klinger award—recognized the book as a definitive resource with a breadth and depth of knowledge “that will serve as a primary source on the plants of Belize and their uses for many generations.”

“This book is a truly significant volume that culminates decades of close collaboration between the two authors and local experts in Belize who practice and teach plant-based medicine and crafts and who promote the conservation and appreciation of that country’s diverse array of plant species, ecosystems, and human communities,” said Gayle Fritz, Ph.D., the President of the Society for the last year.

Messages from the Gods was co-published by The New York Botanical Garden and Oxford University Press.

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Plants as Calendars

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on March 13, 2018 by Science Talk

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


Melanthera biflora Balick Final
Melanthera biflora, known as intop asiej in Aneityum. When it flowers, local people know that sea turtles are very fat and ready to be hunted.

For most of us, calendars rule our lives. They allow us to organize our days, remind us of future appointments, and importantly, help us to carve out a space when we can take a break from the frenetic pace of life. Increasingly, they are stored on our computers or mobile phones, but this modern tool developed and evolved over a long period of human history.

Before the introduction of the Western calendar, people in Vanuatu reckoned time through their own observations of the natural world. Especially important were certain species of “calendar plants,” whose flowering or fruiting provided an indication of the change of seasons and cues for certain activities, such as gardening, hunting, and fishing. The use of plants as a guide for human activities is of great interest to us. During the past two years, we have been privileged to work with a team of people focused on understanding the diversity, distribution, uses, linguistics and conservation of the Vanuatu flora. Our work on the Tafean islands of Tanna and Aneityum involves collecting plants, mapping plant distributions, and gathering information on the local names of these plants and how people use them.

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New Jersey Lichens Give Up the Ghost

Posted in From the Field on January 22, 2018 by Science Talk

Jessica Allen, Ph.D., is a Post-Doctoral Researcher at the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow, and Landscape Research in Birmensdorf, Switzerland. James Lendemer, Ph.D., is an Assistant Curator in the Institute of Systematic Botany at The New York Botanical Garden. Lichens are their primary research interest.


Lendemer
James Lendemer examining a reindeer lichen transplant

In April 2015, we carefully removed two species of lichens from their original homes at the Rutgers Pinelands Field Station in southern New Jersey, wrapped them in tissue paper, and transported them to the Thain Family Forest at The New York Botanical Garden. Once there, we hung one species, called old man’s beard (Usnea strigosa), in trees, and we nestled the other, known as reindeer lichen (Cladonia subtenuis), on the forest floor. These species used to live in New York City but were extirpated by the early 1900s because of decreasing air quality. Now that air quality is improving in the city, we were curious to test whether or not the species were ready to be brought back.

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“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.

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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.