Lawrence M. Kelly, Ph.D., is Associate Vice President for Science Administration and Director of Graduate Studies at The New York Botanical Garden.
Every year on May 22, The New York Botanical Garden joins the global community in celebrating International Day for Biological Diversity. Established in 1993 by the United Nations, this day recognizes international cooperation and commitment to take global action to reduce the rate of biodiversity loss. It is also an outstanding opportunity to increase understanding and awareness of biodiversity issues, especially, for us here at NYBG, the issues facing the plant kingdom.
It is no exaggeration to say that without plants, life on Earth would be impossible. Plants provide food, clothing, shelter, medicine, and the raw materials to meet most human needs. Plants make the air we breathe, they create the rain that waters the world, and they are essential for healthy ecosystems. The beauty of plants nurtures our souls and inspires our imaginations. Yet the plant diversity that sustains us is imperiled today as never before in human history. One-third of Earth’s nearly 400,000 plant species are at risk of extinction.
“What is that?”
“What lives in there? Are they dangerous? Do they bite?”
And, loudest of all, “EWWWWWW!”
These are some of the many questions (and noises of disgust) hurled in retaliation to the dripping, mucky leaf pack I hold up at the front of the classroom. Water fresh from the Bronx River streams from the decomposing leaves into a bucket below, and an odor that could be described as either “earthy” or “gross” pervades the GreenSchool classroom. My charges for the next 90 minutes—a group of unsuspecting middle schoolers—want nothing to do with whatever is going on in that mess of organic matter. Little do they know that within minutes they’ll be clamoring to sort through the leaves and rocks and mysterious river sludge to find living treasures underneath…
Scott A. Mori, Ph.D., is a Curator Emeritus associated with the Institute of Systematic Botany at The New York Botanical Garden. His research interests are the ecology, classification, and conservation of tropical rain forest trees.
Among the many products of the research published by scientists at The New York Botanical Garden (NYBG) are Floras. A Flora is a book in which species are described, while the word flora refers to the totality of plant species in an area; in other words, a flora is described in a Flora.
Floristic publications document and describe the diversity of a given group of plants growing in specific geographic areas. They may be floras of algae, mosses, ferns, gymnosperms, and angiosperms or combinations of these groups. For example, a Flora might include all of the vascular plants (ferns, gymnosperms, and angiosperms) of the northeastern United States. The equivalent of a Flora for fungi is called a Mycota, because fungi are more closely related to animals than they are to plants.
Some examples of Floras are the Manual of Vascular Plants of Northeastern United States and Adjacent Canada by Henry A. Gleason and Arthur Cronquist, the Intermountain Flora recently completed by Noel and Patricia K. Holmgren and their colleagues, and Pleurocarpous mosses of the West Indies by William R. Buck–all published by The New York Botanical Garden Press. Floras are important because they allow both amateur and professional botanists to identify plants—the first step in developing a deeper appreciation of plants and for carrying out research on them. In addition, scientific Floras or Mycotas serve as the basis for field guides such as Roy Halling and Gregory M. Mueller’s Common Mushrooms of the Talamanca Mountains, Costa Rica.
Every year around Earth Day, many people wonder if there is anything they can do that will make a difference in the effort to understand and preserve our environment. Of course there is! There are all kinds of volunteer projects for all sorts of interests. Here at The New York Botanical Garden, for instance, volunteers are helping us make a critical part of our scientific collection available online so researchers everywhere can have easy access to the information.
The William and Lynda Steere Herbarium is taking part in a citizen-scientist transcription project called Notes from Nature, which enlists volunteers to help make the contents of the world’s biological collections accessible to the public through the Internet. Notes from Nature is part of Zooniverse, which has enlisted volunteers to look for new planets and transcribe climate data from ships’ logs. Notes from Nature is celebrating its first anniversary this week and also an important milestone: its volunteers have completed a half million transcriptions!
Damon P. Little, Ph.D., is Assistant Curator of Bioinformatics in The Lewis B. and Dorothy Cullman Program for Molecular Systematics. In addition to his research projects involving large sets of plant DNA data, he studies the cypress family of conifers.
Saw palmetto is the third best-selling herbal supplement in the United States, with sales totaling more than $31 million in 2012, but are the men who buy these supplements getting saw palmetto or something else?
That was the question my collaborator and I set out to answer when we extracted DNA from 34 saw palmetto supplements that we bought at retail stores in New York City and online. By comparing the DNA sequences of the supplements with DNA from samples of saw palmetto and its close relatives, we would find out whether the supplements were genuine or not.
Men take supplements made from the fruit of saw palmetto (Serenoa repens, a member of the palm family) to alleviate the symptoms of an enlarged prostate. Almost all commercial saw palmetto fruit is harvested from wild plants that can be found throughout the southeastern United States (Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina). Several clinical studies have tried to determine if saw palmetto is beneficial, but the results remain inconclusive.
The quiet corridors of the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium here at The New York Botanical Garden are lined with steel cabinets where preserved plant specimens are stored for scientific study, but they are also a treasure trove of history, filled with stories waiting to be told.
One of those stories came to light recently when I set out to determine whether any traces remained in the Steere Herbarium of a significant but little-known research project that involved one of America’s most famous inventors—Thomas Alva Edison.
In the late 1920s, Edison was on a quest for plants that could be grown locally, quickly, and economically to produce latex and provide America with a domestic source of rubber. At the time, the country was dependent on imported rubber for such important products as automobile tires, and Edison and his friends Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone were concerned that an international crisis such as a war could cut off that supply. In 1927, they formed the Edison Botanic Research Corporation in Fort Myers, Florida, and Edison enlisted crews to collect plant specimens throughout the United States, particularly in the South.
Edison’s quest brought him to the Botanical Garden to conduct botanical research in collaboration with the Garden’s Head Curator, John Kunkel Small. At one point the inventor who perfected the light bulb even had a small laboratory in the grand Beaux-Arts building that now houses The LuEsther T. Mertz Library. Tests concluded that the goldenrod (in the plant genus Solidago) contained the most promising amount of latex.