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.”
As 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.
Oh, 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.
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.