Last fall, when the leaves were turning golden yellow and bright red in The New York Botanical Garden’s old-growth forest, two Botanical Garden scientists were on the other side of the world, trekking through a very different old-growth forest in northern Myanmar.
Cycads, an ancient group of cone-producing tropical plants, are sometimes called “living fossils” because they have existed for more than 200 million years–since before the time of the dinosaurs. Yet despite surviving mass extinctions, continental drift, ice ages, and other challenges, cycads are in trouble today.
One of the world’s leading experts on this intriguing group of plants is Dennis Wm. Stevenson, Ph.D., Vice President for Botanical Research and Cullman Curator at The New York Botanical Garden. Dr. Stevenson’s cycad research has taken him to every continent, including Antarctica, and he has discovered and described many new species.
Recently, Matt Candeias of the blog and podcast “In Defense of Plants” talked to Dr. Stevenson about his decades-long fascination with cycads, which began during his years as a graduate student at the University of California-Davis. You can hear their conversation here.
Vanuatu, an island nation in the South Pacific Ocean, lies at the crossroads of regional groups of islands with a rich and original assortment of plant life, including species from Australia and Asia that were brought to these volcanic islands by wind, marine currents, and animals.
Comprehensive, accessible information about many of Vanuatu’s most noteworthy plant species is now available in one convenient volume, Remarkable Plants of Vanuatu, by Laurence Ramon and Chanel Sam, which is newly published by The New York Botanical Garden Press and Biotope, a French publisher. The text is in English and French.
Remarkable Plants of Vanuatu is intended to raise awareness of Vanuatu’s plant diversity among the general public and aid conservation efforts in the country, whose residents are largely rural and depend on plants for food, firewood, timber, medicine, and handmade goods.
The video captures the activity in the Mounting Room and Digital Imaging Lab of the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium as specimens are carefully glued to acid-free paper and then photographed in ultra-high resolution before they are filed in the Steere Herbarium.
There are also stunning images of rain forest and desert plants in the Botanical Garden’s Enid A. Haupt Conservatory. The variety and beauty of the plants drive home the point made by Dr. Barbara Thiers, the Garden’s Vice President for Science Administration and Director of the Herbarium.
“Plants are endlessly fascinating,” she says in the video. “We have to know what they are and how they differ from one another in order to understand what kind of measures need to be taken to protect them.”
When Ina Vandebroek, Ph.D., started to study how immigrant Caribbean communities use traditional plant-based medicines in their health care, she soon realized that her subjects often did not tell their doctors about the various remedies they are using.
To help bridge this gap, Dr. Vandebroek, the Matthew Calbraith Perry Assistant Curator of Economic Botany and the director of the Caribbean Program at the Institute of Economic Botany of The New York Botanical Garden, has held nearly 50 training sessions for 740 medical students and practicing physicians.
The goal of these sessions is to raise awareness among health-care practitioners about traditional plant-based medicines so they can communicate better with their patients, build trust, and identify potentially harmful drug interactions between mainstream pharmaceuticals and the active chemicals in traditional remedies.
After initially focusing on immigrants from the Dominican Republic, Dr. Vandebroek has now expanded her research project to include Jamaican immigrants. Her research is supported in part by a World of Difference grant from the Cigna Foundation, which announced last week that it was renewing the grant for a second year.
Dr. Vandebroek recently wrote about the importance of understanding immigrant health care practices for “The Doctor’s Tablet,” a blog at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, where Dr. Vandebroek has held several training sessions for its health care professionals. You can read her post here.
Like most scientific research institutions, The New York Botanical Garden regularly hosts visiting scientists, but it’s especially gratifying to welcome back former graduate students who have gone on to important positions elsewhere.
That was the case recently when Natalia Pabón-Mora, Ph.D., returned to the Garden for several weeks. Dr. Pabón-Mora, who received her Ph.D. in 2012, is currently a professor at the Universidad de Antioquia in Medellin, Colombia.
She took a break from her research to talk with Lawrence M. Kelly, Ph.D., Director of the Commodore Matthew Perry Graduate Studies Program at the Botanical Garden, about what attracted her to the Garden as a place to study plant science.
A capacity audience filled the Ross Lecture Hall last week for The New York Botanical Garden’s Native Plants Summit, at which leading experts from academia, conservation groups, and private consulting practices discussed the current status, conservation, and outlook for the native plants of the Northeast.
In his welcoming remarks, Gregory Long, Chief Executive Officer and the William C. Steere Sr. President of the Botanical Garden, said that the Garden had been involved in studying and collecting the native plants of North America since its founding in 1891. He noted that the Garden’s founder, Nathaniel Lord Britton, had co-authored the first edition of a landmark flora of the plants of northeastern North America, the latest edition of which is now being prepared by the Garden scientist who organized the summit, Robert Naczi, Ph.D.
Since his death on August 30, Dr. Oliver Sacks has been described as a latter-day Renaissance man who took a learned delight in many things—neurology, certainly, but also minerals, squids, and other cephalopods such as cuttlefish, and, most definitely, plants.
Dr. Sacks, who was a Board Member of The New York Botanical Garden and a 2011 recipient of the Botanical Garden’s Gold Medal, was especially fascinated with cycads and ferns, and the Garden scientists who specialize in those plants were among those at the Garden who knew him well.
Cycad expert Dennis Stevenson, Ph.D., the Garden’s Vice President for Botanical Research and Cullman Curator, recalled that Dr. Sacks, who for many years paid regular Wednesday visits to the Garden, enjoyed bringing together people from the various fields that appealed to his eclectic nature so they could learn from each other. Botanists learned about cephalopods from marine biologists; geologists learned about plant science from botanists.
“Oliver was always in a most subtle way teaching all of us about the world around us,” Dr. Stevenson said.
At the recent 34th annual Founders Corporate Dinner, The New York Botanical Garden saluted two generous funders—Google Inc. and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation—for their support of NYBG’s leading role in World Flora Online (WFO), a global project to create the definitive online scientific resource about plants.
NYBG Board member Sigourney Weaver presented the Garden’s Founders Award to Eric Schmidt, Google’s Executive Chairman, in appreciation of Google’s major financial and technical support for the Garden’s work on WFO.
In accepting the award, Schmidt said WFO would be “open, free, and available forever” and called it “a genuine sea change. All of us at Google love this partnership!”
What does the sun do? That question was posed recently by Science Friday, the incomparable science news program that airs on public radio stations nationwide. To kick off its latest Science Club education activity, the program asked a number of scientists and solar experts for their thoughts about why the sun matters.
As you might imagine, how you think about the sun depends largely on what you do. Ernest Moniz, the U. S. Secretary of Energy, talked about the sun as a source of energy. A psychiatrist talked about the sun’s influence on our mood.
What about a botanist? The program asked Barbara A. Ambrose, Ph.D., who is Cullman Associate Curator for Plant Genomics at The New York Botanical Garden, to ponder the role of the sun in the world of plants. Here’s her thought-provoking answer:
What does the sun do?
The sun provides energy. Plants transform the sun’s energy into stored chemical energy during photosynthesis. This is an amazing process in which plants take carbon dioxide, water, and the sun’s photons and produce carbohydrates and oxygen. These carbohydrates are the stored chemical energy that allows plants to grow and develop into the food we eat and the flowers we enjoy. Plants have evolved for hundreds of millions of years to harness the energy of the sun efficiently and effectively, something we humans have yet to perfect. What’s really cool is that a byproduct of this reaction is oxygen–the air we need to breathe.
You can read the responses of other experts, as well as hear Dr. Ambrose read her explanation, at the Science Friday site here. You can also share your own thoughts on that page’s comments section or in our comments box.
And if you talk about this with your friends, just remember: the oxygen you’re using to speak came from a sunbeam striking a leaf.