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

Stevenson Swanson

From Tree to Shining Tree: The Living Network under the Forest

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on September 7, 2016 by Stevenson Swanson

Stevenson Swanson is the Science Media Manager at The New York Botanical Garden.


NYBG fall forest foliage

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.

You can hear the episode here.

The Science of Stink

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on July 29, 2016 by Stevenson Swanson

Stevenson Swanson is the Science Media Manager at The New York Botanical Garden.


Corpse FlowerAh, 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.

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Collected on the Fourth of July

Posted in Past and Present on July 1, 2016 by Stevenson Swanson

Stevenson Swanson is the Science Media Manager at The New York Botanical Garden.


Dichanthelium latifolium
Dichanthelium latifolium

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.

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The Palms of Vietnam: A Doubling of Numbers

Posted in From the Field on June 20, 2016 by Stevenson Swanson

Stevenson Swanson is the Science Media Manager at The New York Botanical Garden.


Vietnam’s mountainous Ha Giang province, near China
Vietnam’s mountainous Ha Giang province, near China

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.”

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WFO at NYBG: Scientists From Around the World Meet to Advance Work on a Comprehensive Online Plant Database

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on May 6, 2016 by Stevenson Swanson

Stevenson Swanson is the Science Media Manager at The New York Botanical Garden.


World Flora Online New York Botanical GardenAs if assembling a comprehensive, scientifically verified database of more than 350,000 plant species were not a daunting task to begin with, try doing it in only four years. That’s the ambitious goal the scientists working on World Flora Online (WFO) are racing to meet.

When it’s up and running, WFO will provide scientists, conservationists, political leaders, and other policy-makers with information they need to protect one of Earth’s most important resources—its plants.

More than two dozen of the world’s leading plant scientists gathered at The New York Botanical Garden recently to review the progress that has been made on WFO and to plan the way forward so they can meet the goal of completing the database in 2020, which was established in the Convention on Biological Diversity, an international agreement.

As part of a week-long series of meetings at the Botanical Garden, several of the participants spoke about specific aspects of this monumental project during a symposium on Wednesday, April 27, in the Garden’s Ross Hall.

The presentations began with introductory remarks by Barbara M. Thiers, Ph.D., the Garden’s Vice President for Science Administration and the Patricia K. Holmgren Director of the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium. She noted that the Garden is one of four leading botanical institutions that are working together to coordinate the efforts of scientists and institutions around the world to create this first-of-its-kind online resource.

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Sex, Lies—and Orchids?

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on April 15, 2016 by Stevenson Swanson

Stevenson Swanson is the Science Media Manager at The New York Botanical Garden.


OrchidOh, those naughty orchids. An insect may think it has found a safe place to lay its eggs or discovered a willing partner for a tryst, but it turns out that nest or member of the opposite sex is really an orchid. Orchids have evolved these deceptive appearances and many other techniques such as alluring aromas and vibrant colors to lure insects to do their bidding, namely to spread their pollen to other orchids so they can produce seeds.

Just in time for the closing weekend of The Orchid Show: Orchidelirium, the public radio program Science Friday has posted a short video on its website that explores the evolutionary adaptations that have allowed some of the most beautiful members of the plant kingdom to flourish. Shot at The New York Botanical Garden and featuring Marc Hachadourian, Director of the Nolen Greenhouses and Curator of Orchids, this video may leave you thinking that we humans are just as susceptible to the allures of orchids as those six-legged pollinators.

Forest Primeval: Trekking Through Myanmar’s Northern Forest Complex

Posted in From the Field, Travelogue on April 11, 2016 by Stevenson Swanson

Stevenson Swanson is the Science Media Manager at The New York Botanical Garden.


Gatthu Myanmar NYBG Science
Setting out, uphill, from Gatthu village on the first day of the trek

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.

The scientists—Kate Armstrong, Ph.D., Myanmar Program Coordinator in the Institute of Systematic Botany, and Damon P. Little, Ph.D., Associate Curator of Bioinformatics in the Lewis B. and Dorothy Cullman Program for Molecular Systematics—are part of a major Garden research program to discover and document Myanmar’s botanical diversity, build the country’s capacity to carry out plant research, and promote the sustainable use of its forests.

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Living Fossils: A Scientist’s Fascination with Cycads

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on March 9, 2016 by Stevenson Swanson

Stevenson Swanson is the Science Media Manager at The New York Botanical Garden.


Palms of the World Gallery cycadCycads, 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.

Some cycads such as the sago palm are popular commerical plants, but in the wild, habitat destruction and poaching are now pushing many species in this group to the brink. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature has said that 53 percent of the approximately 300 species of cycads are imperiled.

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.

The Remarkable Plants of a Pacific Island Nation

Posted in Books: Past and Present on February 26, 2016 by Stevenson Swanson

Stevenson Swanson is the Science Media Manager at The New York Botanical Garden.


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.

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Great Big Story: World Flora Online in the Spotlight

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on December 29, 2015 by Stevenson Swanson

Stevenson Swanson is the Science Media Manager at The New York Botanical Garden.


Enid A. Haupt ConservatoryIt’s a great big story, all right.

CNN’s new online video unit, called Great Big Story, recently reported on The New York Botanical Garden’s work on World Flora Online, a worldwide effort to produce a single, scientifically verified database of information about all of the world’s plant species—an estimated 350,000 of them.

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.”