By their nature, scientists tend to be forward-looking sorts. As they explore their field of research, one question leads to another question, which, inevitably, leads to yet another question. But a recent issue of Brittonia, a quarterly journal of botanical research published by NYBG Press, casts a backward glance at 125 years of science and conservation at The New York Botanical Garden.
Research has played a major role at The New York Botanical Garden since its founding—by a husband-wife team of plant scientists—in 1891. As Lawrence M. Kelly, Ph.D., the editor of this special issue, writes in an introductory essay, the Botanical Garden’s scientific programs are aimed at describing, documenting, understanding, and preserving plant diversity.
It’s been called a “national treasure” by the National Science Foundation, but The New York Botanical Garden’s William and Lynda Steere Herbarium is hardly a familiar feature of the NYBG landscape for most visitors.
In fact, if they were told that the Steere Herbarium is the second largest research collection of its kind in the world, they might well reply, “What in the World is a Herbarium?”
As it happens, that’s the name of a new NYBG exhibition that showcases the central role that the Herbarium plays in the critically important plant research that takes place behind the scenes every day at NYBG.
In Look Who’s Minding Our Planet, filmmaker Sara Lukinson explores the visionary partnership between philanthropist Lewis Cullman and The New York Botanical Garden, which has resulted in a world-class plant research program. The scientists in NYBG’s Lewis B. and Dorothy Cullman Program for Molecular Systematics delve into the evolution of plants, study their genetic make-up, and work to unravel their complex interrelationships.
As this compelling short documentary shows, they are also training the next generation of plant researchers, all with the goal of understanding and preserving the world’s plant life, which makes the rest of life on Earth possible.
That’s the basic process for turning a plant into a research specimen that will last indefinitely, and it’s stayed the same for hundreds of years for a good reason: It works.
As proof, here’s a member of the daisy family that botanists Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander clipped in January 1769 in Tierra del Fuego, at the southern tip of South America. They were part of the scientific team aboard the HMS Endeavour on Captain James Cook’s first voyage around the world. This 248-year-old specimen, still holding onto its leaves and retaining most of its color, is now part of the collection of 7.8 million preserved plants in NYBG’s William and Lynda Steere Herbarium, the second largest in the world.
In the effort to conserve the planet’s biodiversity, plants tend to be overlooked. People spend much more time and money on “charismatic” species of animals. For instance, 100 percent of the world’s known threatened and endangered animals have been assessed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, the most important global institution when it comes to evaluating such threats. But only assessed about five percent of plants have been assessed.
It’s a scary state of affairs, especially considering that so-called biodiversity hotspots are defined by their vascular flora.
The New York Botanical Garden is working to improve awareness and understanding about the botanical world. That was one of the topics when Matt Candeias of the blog and podcast “In Defense of Plants” interviewed Dr. Brian Boom who, among his other responsibilities at the Botanical Garden, is the Garden’s Vice President for Conservation Strategy.
To listen to their discussion about Dr. Boom’s career and how he became so passionate about plant conservation in the modern world, click here.
Stevenson Swanson is the Science Media Manager at The New York Botanical Garden.
In a new podcast from health insurer Cigna, Ina Vandebroek, Ph.D.—the Matthew Calbraith Perry Assistant Curator of Economic Botany and Caribbean Program Director at The New York Botanical Garden—discusses how she studies the ways in which Caribbean and Latino immigrants in New York use medicinal plants in their health care.
As part of her research, she delves into the traditional knowledge, beliefs, and practices of the Dominican and Jamaican communities and also carries out field research in the Dominican Republic and Jamaica.
Dr. Vandebroek talks about cultural beliefs about specific illnesses and herbal therapies that are recognized in these communities but unfamiliar in mainstream medicine, such as “evil eye.”
Putting her voluminous research to practical use, she has developed training activities with health care professionals to help them understand the traditional beliefs and health care practices of their Latino and Caribbean patients. Her aim is to give doctors and other providers the information and understanding they need to build trusting relationships with their immigrant patients—with fully informed, improved care as the ultimate goal.
That old saying about not being able to see the forest for the trees turns out to be more than just a metaphor. Standing in the middle of a forest, it’s easy to see each tree as an individual, but in reality, the trees are bound together by a living network that proves beneficial not only for the trees—which get the minerals they need to grow to great heights—but also to the network, which gets a steady supply of nutrients from the trees to keep it alive.
What is this network? That’s the mystery that award-winning science journalist Robert Krulwich sets out to answer in a recent episode of public radio’s Radiolab.
His scientific sleuthing brought him to the Thain Family Forest, the 50-acre old-growth forest at The New York Botanical Garden, where he interviewed Curator of Mycology Roy Halling, Ph.D., the Botanical Garden’s expert on all things fungal. That’s a pretty broad hint about the nature of the network, by the way.
As with all Radiolab stories, the result is an adventure in imaginative reporting and storytelling that revels in the wonders of the world around us. Or, in this case, beneath us.
Stevenson Swanson is the Science Media Manager at The New York Botanical Garden.
Ah, New York in the summer. So many fetid fragrances fill the air. The garbage on the sidewalk, the hot blast of exhaust from a passing bus, the dank odor of the subway—these and even less savory sources best left to the imagination all add their odors to the city’s atmosphere on a hot, humid day.
That makes it all the more remarkable that thousands of New Yorkers have flocked to The New York Botanical Garden to see the corpse flower that is now blooming in the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory. Apart from its size and striking appearance, the plant is notable for its stench, often compared to the smell of rotting flesh, which is the clever ploy it has evolved to attract pollinators.
Perhaps the fact that the plant blooms so infrequently and unpredictably draws most people, but many seem fascinated by the phenomenon that something in nature would smell this bad on purpose.
Watching some fireworks, going to the local parade, grilling burgers and hot dogs, maybe even finding time for a nap. Sounds like a classic Fourth of July. Collecting plant specimens is notably missing from this list. And yet, for botanists, our nation’s birthday is not necessarily a day off.
A search of the C. V. Starr Virtual Herbarium, where The New York Botanical Garden’s digitized herbarium specimens are made available online to researchers and the public, reveals that it includes no fewer than 6,808 specimens that were collected on a Fourth of July. They come from around the world, but more than 1,000 were snipped or dug up in the United States on Independence Day. They eventually found their way to the Botanical Garden’s William and Lynda Steere Herbarium, where they are now part of the 7.8 million specimens that are preserved there and are now being digitized for the Starr Virtual Herbarium.
The last scientific survey of the plants of Vietnam—written by two French botanists in 1937, when it was a French colony—led a team of researchers to expect that they would find about 60 species of palms when they began a research project in that Southeast Asian country in 2007.
To date, they have discovered 113 species, including 41 that are new to science, and an entirely new genus (a group of closely related species).
“Sometimes we can drive up a road and look out the window and see new species,” Andrew Henderson, Ph.D., Abess Curator of Palms at The New York Botanical Garden, told a group of Garden Members during a recent Britton Gallery Talk. “Vietnam was overlooked by biologists for a long time because of war.”