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Extinct in New York: Exhibition Based on NYC EcoFlora Project

Posted inGarden News onDecember 26, 2019 by Science Talk

Photo of an herbarium specimen
Botanical illustration of Bicknell’s Cranesbill (Geranium bicknellii, Geraniaceae), whose last documented sighting in New York City was in 1895 by citizen scientist Eugene P. Bicknell.

At a recent talk presented by NYBG’s Humanities Institute of the LuEsther T. Mertz Library, artist Michael Wang discussed Extinct in New York. His compelling installation of four greenhouses contained a selection of plant, lichen, and algae species historically documented in the natural environments of New York City, but which no longer grow wild in any of the city’s five boroughs. The exhibition at Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s Art Center on Governors Island earlier this fall was based on surveys and historical research from the New York City EcoFlora project at The New York Botanical Garden, with assistance from Brian M. Boom, Ph.D., Vice President for Conservation Strategy, Daniel Atha, Director of Conservation Outreach, and James Lendemer, Ph.D., Assistant Curator in the Institute of Systematic Botany.

The NYC EcoFlora project engages citizen scientists in documenting and preserving the city’s native and naturalized flora, and flagging invasive species. In the months leading up to the exhibition, Wang researched, sourced, planted, and tended to seeds and seedlings of these former New York City natives in his garden and studio in Upper Grandview, New York. During the exhibition, these organisms were sustained within a laboratory-like installation, under the care of a team of Arts Center staff, local students, and volunteers. Wang intends the plants to remain in the city after the exhibition, in the managed spaces of urban gardens—re-introduced to the lands where they once grew wild, but persisting now only under human care. For more information about Wang’s practice and the species featured as well as writings, photographs, and botanical drawings that sketch stories of ecological disappearance, read the artist’s statement here.

This article originally appeared as part of the Fall 2019-Winter 2020 issue of Garden News, NYBG’s seasonal newsletter. For further reading, view the issue online and discover a sampling of stories about current programs and undertaking at the Garden.

Dispelling a Seasonal Myth: For Humans, The Poinsettia is Not a Toxic Plant

Posted inInteresting Plant Stories onDecember 12, 2019 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. Lewis S. Nelson, M.D., is Professor and Chair of the Department of Emergency Medicine and Chief of the Division of Medical Toxicology at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School in Newark, NJ.


Photo of a poinsettiaThe appearance of the poinsettia, Euphorbia pulcherrima, means to many people that the holiday season is upon us. The showy bracts that surround the flowers are most often red but can be many other colors, ranging from pale green and white to orange or pink, as well as mixtures of those colors. But pity the poor poinsettia—there are those who mistakenly believe that the leaves and bracts of this beautiful plant are toxic when ingested.

How did this belief arise? In 1944, the book, Poisonous Plants of Hawaii (H.L. Arnold, Tongg Publishing Company, Honolulu) stated that the “milky juice and the leaves are poisonous.” This assertion was based on a case in which a two-year old child of a U.S. Army officer at Fort Shafter in Honolulu died from eating a poinsettia leaf in 1919. The book furthermore suggested that poinsettia leaves and sap cause “intense emesis and catharsis and delirium before death.”

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

Posted inFrom the Field onSeptember 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 inInteresting Plant Stories onSeptember 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 inBook onJuly 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 inInteresting Plant Stories onMarch 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 inFrom the Field onJanuary 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 inFrom the Field onNovember 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 inInteresting Plant Stories onOctober 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 inNuggets from the Archives onAugust 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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