Scott A. Mori, Ph.D., is a Curator Emeritus at The New York Botanical Garden. He is a specialist in the Brazil nut family.
In August, renowned botanist Reinaldo Aguilar was honored for his ongoing inventory of the plants of the Osa Peninsula, which juts into the Pacific Ocean in southwestern Costa Rica near the Panama
border. In a ceremony at Corcovado National Park on the peninsula, Costa Rican President Luis Guillermo Solís presented Reinaldo with an award and pointed out how important botanical inventories are for selecting and managing biological preserves on the Osa, a region of high biodiversity.
Reinaldo began documenting plant diversity on the Osa in 1991 and continues to explore for new and interesting plants. Since 2008, Reinaldo has been collaborating with the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium of The New York Botanical Garden and is the lead author of the Vascular Plants of the Osa Peninsula.
Scott A. Mori, Ph.D, is a Curator Emeritus associated with the Institute of Systematic Botany at The New York Botanical Garden. His research interests are the ecology, classification, and conservation of tropical rain forest trees. He is also interested in the plants of Westchester County, where he lives.
In 1986, R. S. Mitchell calculated that 1,081 of the 3,022 known species of flowering plants in New York State have been introduced from other parts of the world (A checklist of New York State Plants. New York State Museum and Science Service 458: 1-250). That means 36 percent of the plant species found in the Empire State are exotic, or not native.
One of these introductions is the tree of heaven (Ailanthus altissima of the mostly tropical plant family Simaroubaceae), which was introduced several times into the United States from China and Taiwan due to its ornamental and medicinal properties.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture Plants Database, the tree of heaven has been recorded in all but seven states in the contiguous United States. This species is particularly aggressive because it is able to become established in many different habitats; grow rapidly, which gives it the ability to produce seeds in a short time; be pollinated by many different insects, such as bees, beetles, and flies; grow in contaminated soils; produce stems from suckers; and generate winged fruits, which enable it to be efficiently dispersed by the wind.
The tree of heaven is easy to identify because of its long, pinnately compound leaves placed alternately on the stem and its flowers, with the ovaries divided into five separate parts, each of which can produce a winged fruit called a samara. The tree of heaven is especially conspicuous at this time of year because of the abundant fruits that are first yellow and then red at maturity.
Highways produce the sunny conditions that the tree of heaven thrives in, thereby providing a migration route that facilitates its movement from one area to other. As a consequence of its ability to produce abundant seeds, it easily moves from one locality to another, and once established, suckers allow it to produce additional stems. With time it will become more and more abundant along our highways and other open habitats.
Scott A. Mori, Ph.D, is a Curator Emeritus associated with the Institute of Systematic Botany at The New York Botanical Garden. His research interests are the ecology, classification, and conservation of tropical rain forest trees.
If you have noticed a plant forming a green veil over utility poles or vegetation along roads and parkways in the New York metropolitan area, you probably thought that it was the notorious kudzu vine, a member of the pea family that has been well publicized as a fast-growing invasive plant.
Although kudzu has been reported in New York, it is not the invasive plant found along the Saw Mill River Parkway and other roadways. This plant is a member of the grape family (Vitaceae) and is called the porcelain berry (Ampelopsis brevipedunculata) because of its beautifully colored fruits. These two invasive plants can be distinguished from one another by the porcelain berry’s simple, lobed leaves; presence of delicate tendrils; small greenish flowers; and berry fruits. By contrast, kudzu has compound leaves (a leaf divided into separate leaflets); robust tendrils; larger, pea-like flowers; and legume fruits resembling peapods.
The porcelain berry, introduced from Asia as an ornamental plant, escaped from cultivation and has become one of the worst invasive plants in our area. The veil of green that it produces deprives all other plants of sunlight, water, and nutrients.
In early spring the porcelain berry appears as a massive tangle of stems, sprawling over low vegetation along the roadside and up into trees. The plant’s tendrils facilitate its climb into tree tops. The flowers produce abundant nectar that attracts swarms of small bees, wasps, and other insects, thereby facilitating the production of fruits.
The plant’s fruits are small, spherical berries with a pulp surrounding the seeds. They are multicolored, ranging from white to lavender to blue, with dark spots adorning their outer surfaces. The fruits are consumed by animals, especially birds, which disperse their seeds into new areas. Currently, the leaves have not yet flushed out, so it is possible to see that few, if any, other plants are able to compete with the porcelain berry.
The accompanying images show the stages that the porcelain berry goes through during the year. The first image shows how the porcelain berry looks now. To limit this invasive from invading new habitats, do not cultivate it and pull out any young plants that you encounter! Once the porcelain berry becomes established, it is extremely difficult to eradicate.
For information about another invasive plant that is currently flushing new leaves, click on Japanese barberry.
Michel Ribeiro is a Brazilian specialist in the Brazil nut family (Lecythidaceae) and a Ph.D. candidate studying for an advanced degree at the National School of Tropical Botany of the Rio de Janeiro Botanical Garden. Scott A. Mori, Ph.D, is a Curator Emeritus associated with the Institute of Systematic Botany at The New York Botanical Garden. His research interests are the ecology, classification, and conservation of tropical rain forest trees.
On this first day of spring in the Northern Hemisphere, we wanted to share a photo that captures the beauty of a rain forest tree that comes into its own during early spring in the Southern Hemisphere.
In a previous post, the second author described the life history of this magnificent tree, the sapucaia (Lecythis pisonis). Reaching 120 feet in height, it is pollinated by carpenter bees, and its seeds are dispersed by bats. The sapucaia drops it leaves in the Southern Hemisphere spring, remains leafless for 10 to 15 days, usually produces pink new leaves and flowers at the same time, and after flowering the leaves turn green.
During this time, the sapucaia tree is the most spectacular tree in the forests of eastern Brazil. The new leaves cover the tree, making it look as if its entire crown is full of flowers. Although purple flowers are present and beautiful, they are hidden by the pink leaves, which most likely play a significant role in attracting the pollinators. Bees visit most of the flowers to gather pollen, but, surprisingly, only two percent of the flowers yield fruits. We hypothesize that the reason for this is that the trees probably produce only enough carbohydrates for the flowers to develop into a limited number of its giant woody fruits, the size of a child’s head, as well as the large seeds they contain.
For more information about the phenology—that is, the cycle of leafing, flowering, and fruiting—of species in the Brazil nut family, visit the Lecythidaceae Pages and type “phenology” into the search box.
Scott A. Mori, Ph.D., is a Curator Emeritus associated with the Institute of Systematic Botany at The New York Botanical Garden. His research interests are the ecology, classification, and conservation of tropical rain forest trees.
Among the many products of the research published by scientists at The New York Botanical Garden (NYBG) are Floras. A Flora is a book in which species are described, while the word flora refers to the totality of plant species in an area; in other words, a flora is described in a Flora.
Floristic publications document and describe the diversity of a given group of plants growing in specific geographic areas. They may be floras of algae, mosses, ferns, gymnosperms, and angiosperms or combinations of these groups. For example, a Flora might include all of the vascular plants (ferns, gymnosperms, and angiosperms) of the northeastern United States. The equivalent of a Flora for fungi is called a Mycota, because fungi are more closely related to animals than they are to plants.
Some examples of Floras are the Manual of Vascular Plants of Northeastern United States and Adjacent Canada by Henry A. Gleason and Arthur Cronquist, the Intermountain Flora recently completed by Noel and Patricia K. Holmgren and their colleagues, and Pleurocarpous mosses of the West Indies by William R. Buck–all published by The New York Botanical Garden Press. Floras are important because they allow both amateur and professional botanists to identify plants—the first step in developing a deeper appreciation of plants and for carrying out research on them. In addition, scientific Floras or Mycotas serve as the basis for field guides such as Roy Halling and Gregory M. Mueller’s Common Mushrooms of the Talamanca Mountains, Costa Rica.
Scott A. Mori, Ph.D., is the Nathaniel Lord Britton Curator of Botany at The New York Botanical Garden. Francisca Coelho is the Vivian and Edward Merrin Vice President for Glasshouses and Exhibitions.
In a post on Plant Talk, Scott described the fascinating life cycle of the Amazon water lily. But how did this iconic Amazonian species receive its scientific name, and how did this popular late-summer attraction come to be cultivated so far from its native habitat at major botanical gardens such as The New York Botanical Garden?
The Amazon water lily was discovered by Eduard Friedrich Poeppig in Peru and, because he thought it was related to an eastern Asian water lily belonging to the genus Euryale, he named it Euryale amazonica in 1836. The species was rediscovered by the German botanist Robert Hermann Schomburgk on a botanical expedition supported by Great Britain to what was then known as British Guiana. Schomburgk shipped his detailed notes, drawings, and collections to the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, where John Lindley described the species as Victoria regia in 1837 in honor of Queen Victoria.
This winter’s severe cold and abundant snow have led me to recall the hundreds of comfortable nights I have spent sleeping in a hammock in a rain forest as part of my expeditions to collect plant specimens for the NYBG’s William and Lynda Steere Herbarium.
The hammock, an invention of Amazonian Indians, is the most practical way to sleep in the rain forest. Although it took me a while to get used to sleeping in a hammock, I now look forward to climbing into one after a long day of collecting and preparing plant specimens. The most comfortable hammocks are the traditional ones made of cotton, but the lightest are called garimpeiro hammocks, using the Portuguese word for prospectors or miners because Brazilian gold miners favor them. Made of synthetic fiber, they weigh less than a pound. In combination with a mosquito net and a large backpacking tarp, the garimpeiro hammock is ideal for trips requiring long hikes in the forest.
Pau brasil (Caesalpinia echinata), a member of the legume plant family and the national tree of Brazil, has played an important role in the history of that country. Pau is the colloquial name for árvore (or tree), and the red sap it exudes when the trunk is cut has the color of a burning piece of charcoal (brasa in Portuguese). So pau brasil is translated into English as the Brazil tree. According to some historians, this common name was adopted from the plant as the name of the country, the largest and most biodiverse in South America.
Brazil (spelled Brasil in Portuguese) was discovered in 1500 by the Portuguese explorer Pedro Álvares Cabral, who landed near the present-day city of Santa Cruz de Cabralia in the state of Bahia. At that time, pau brasil was plentiful in the coastal forests of Brazil. The sap was economically important because it was used for dying cloth, but today the tree is best known as the source of highly prized timber used to create bows for string instruments such as violins and cellos.
Normally, the term “tree hugger” brings to mind an environmental activist who takes action to protect trees from destruction by other humans. In contrast, the plant shown here is a tree hugger that may hasten the death of the tree it embraces. The plant “hugging” the tree is a fig, one of the nearly 700 species of the genus Ficus of the mulberry family (Moraeae).
Many species of Ficus are “keystone” species, meaning they play an especially large role in their ecosystems. Their fruits—figs—are eaten by a wide variety of animals, especially species of birds and bats. Bird figs are usually red (Fig. 2) because birds are attracted by red, and bat figs are usually green at maturity because bats often find their food by echolocation and aroma, not by color (Fig. 3).
Figs that embrace trees like this are called strangler figs, but this is a misnomer. They do not strangle the host plant. They do, however, harm their hosts by robbing them of light, water, and nutrients.
Here’s a video that shows how essential big, strong bees are for the production of the largest “nut” found in a can of mixed party nuts. It shows a carpenter bee (Xylocopa frontalis) pollinating the flowers of a Brazil nut tree (Bertholletia excelsa).
We say “nut” because Brazil nuts are seeds, not nuts, a kind of fruit structurally similar to an acorn. The Brazil nuts we eat at parties are produced in a woody fruit that looks like a cannonball, so, to be botanically correct, Brazil nuts should be called Brazil seeds. But we don’t expect that to happen anytime soon!