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

Stevenson Swanson

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.”

Where Botany and Healthcare Intersect

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on November 10, 2015 by Stevenson Swanson

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


Dr. Ina Vandebroek, Ph.D.
Dr. Ina Vandebroek

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.

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The shelves at a Bronx botanica, a store where traditional plant-based remedies are sold.

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.

From Student to Teacher: A Conversation with a Former NYBG Graduate Student

Posted in Past and Present on November 3, 2015 by Stevenson Swanson

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


Dr. Lawrence Kelly & Dr. Natalia Pabón-Mora
Dr. Lawrence Kelly & Dr. Natalia Pabón-Mora

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.

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At a Crossroads for Native Plants

Posted in Events on September 25, 2015 by Stevenson Swanson

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


Native Plants Summit

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.

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Garden Scientists Pay Tribute to Dr. Oliver Sacks

Posted in Personalities in Science on September 4, 2015 by Stevenson Swanson

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


Dr. Oliver Sacks with the Garden’s Patricia Holmgren, Ph.D.
Dr. Oliver Sacks with the Garden’s Patricia Holmgren, 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.

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Google’s Eric Schmidt & Sloan Foundation’s Doron Weber on NYBG and World Flora Online

Posted in Events on May 19, 2015 by Stevenson Swanson

Thirty-Fourth Annual Founders Corporate DinnerAt 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!”

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Here Comes The Sun Science Club: Sunny Thoughts from an NYBG Botanist

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on May 12, 2015 by Stevenson Swanson

Stevenson Swanson is the Garden’s Science Media Manager.


Perennial Garden New York Botanical Garden
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.